iBeacon From Apple - A Technology Going Disruptive In 2014

The year 2014 is about to witness the explosion of an amazingly disruptive technology - Bluetooth Smart and it’s manifestation as iBeacon from Apple.  It is essentially a micro location technology  and in iOS it simply extends its location services.  It can alert apps (in your mobile devices), when you are in the proximity of a location which has a Bluetooth Smart transmitter. You only need an iOS7 or later on your device, Bluetooth turned ON and a compatible device such as iPhone 4S, iPod (5th generation), iPad mini or an iPad (3rd generation). 

The Potentials

The prospects for this micro location technology are enormous.  From shopping to a visit to the museum, to going out to an exotic garden, all the way to the Internet of Things (IoT) - this technology is sure to change the entire interaction landscape. Expect experiencing a much richer and value-enhanced interactions with the physical world around you - smart, location-aware and seamless with little or no effort on your part.

Suppose you are in a mall.  You approach a store that is iBeacon enabled. The moment you step into the “zone”, approximately within 20 meters under practical constraints, the beacon transmitters placed there will welcome you shooting promotional stuff and bargain deals landing on your mobile device; the so called proximity marketing. You step inside and you are rewarded with check-in coupons. As you reach your favorite aisle, offers linked with the items placed there begin pouring in. Since these offers are not only timely, they are also being made right in front of the merchandise that you are already interested in, it will be too hard to resist.  A win for the business. A good deal and a win for you as well.  At the check out counter, simply receive a parting smile and just step out; courtesy contact-less payment from PayPal and other providers.

You visit an exotic garden and become enchanted by some plants. As you go near them, all the interesting information is beamed to your mobile device. You also get the upcoming spring flower show information with the option to buy a ticket for the event at a discount along with some great bargain deals for plants of your interest. 

Same can repeat at the museum. You stand in front of a great piece by Monet (or Van Gogh, if you so prefer), spell bounded, mesmerized by the master strokes, bewildered.  As you are in the proximity, the beacon transmitter sends you not only all the relevant information about the great work, it also sends you information about other great works of art on display at the museum that you might be interested in along with a map of the facility to reach them. Your location-aware, highly contextualized, personal museum guide by your side-in real time.

The heart of Internet of Things is the communication between things. Bluetooth Smart can make it happen in a big way with micro-location awareness down to the precision of a few inches.

Bluetooth Smart (BLE) - The Technology

The underlying technology is not all that new.  It is essentially Bluetooth in a new energy-economized form called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth Smart, the Bluetooth version 4. The hallmark of this morphed wireless technology is reduced power consumption and low cost.  Coupled together, you can have the luxury of owning a transmitter that lasts for a year powered by a small coin sized cell on a really small budget. With an ideal range of 50 meters (practically around 10-20 meters), one can cover an area of 1000 square meters with 5-10 such transmitters.  With triangulation running in the background, the location of a BT enabled device (your iPhone, for example and, therefore, you) can be precisely determined down to a few inches.  Now it is up to the facility manager to interact with your device (and through it with you) in innovative ways limited only by human imagination.

NFC - Biting The Dust

The top contender for interactions with physical objects before this eruption of beacons was NFC (Near Field Communication).  This beacon phenomenon will simply push NFC into irrelevancy in the realm of mass interactions, limiting its use to the domain of small scale, close range interactions.

The obvious reason is the range; NFC has a practical range limited to not more than a couple of inches.  So the business owner has to place a tag on almost every item in the store and the shopper has to almost touch that item with her smart phone before getting any information.  On the other hand BLE transmitters can work within a practical range of 10-20 meters, good enough to welcome the shoppers right at the entrance with choice, hot offers.

The not-so-obvious reason is the cost.  NFC chips are inexpensive, a few cents per piece; but they are needed in a very large number, almost as many as there are items in the store. A small price when multiplied by a large number will simply raise the total cost.  On the other hand,  BLE transmitters are relatively expensive but, because of having a much larger range, only a few of them are enough to cover an entire facility.  So the maths work out in favor of iBeacons at large scale; the usual case with big stores and malls.

Big Players and Technology Adoption

Any upcoming technology is adopted only if there are a large number of enabling devices and products to make the ecosystem live and populated.  Support for BLE powered devices and chips is remarkable; big names such as Qualcomm with its Gimbal beacon, Swirl Networks with its SureCast Beacon and PayPal with its very own BLE powered beacons (for contact-less payment at the checkout) are furthering the adoption of this technology. Shopkick, the shopping app, accompanied by its BLE transmitter, ShopBeacon, is active in Macy’s since November last year. Other retail partners include JCPenny, Crate and Barrel, BestBuy, American Eagle Outfitters, Old Navy and others. Recently Apple has made its Apple Stores iBeacon enabled. Even Android is now Bluetooth Smart enabled.

With this kind of unprecedented support, the list of BLE enabled facilities can only go north. With iBeacon from Apple as the leader, the year 2014 is turning into the year of the beacons in a big, disruptive way.