In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character is personally greeted by a virtual assistant as he enters a clothing store after cameras scan his retinas and identify him (incorrectly, but that is for other reasons).
It turns out that there is a much simpler way of identifying people and personalising retail experiences and not surprisingly, it was Apple that packaged it in a simple and elegant way. The technology is called iBeacon and it is based on a version of Bluetooth called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or Bluetooth Smart. Apple added support for iBeacons in its iPhone OS iOS 7 and so all of the newer iPhones now support this technology.
The way iBeacons work is that they constantly send out a Bluetooth signal with a unique identifier. When a smartphone with an app that is programmed to recognise these signals comes within range, the app can then recognise where it is located and communicate this along with information about the identity of the smartphone owner. The business with the beacons can then communicate with the smartphone user, greeting them and offering special vouchers or facilitating some other transaction.
Personalising our environment
Although the concept is quite simple, the potential for this technology is far reaching. Hotels like the Hilton are using beacons to allow guests to walk into the hotel, be automatically checked in and go straight to their room, using their phone as a key. Banks are interacting with their customers as soon as they enter a branch and allowing them to select services and be notified once staff are ready to deal with them. And possibly the most important function, being able to walk into a coffee shop and have your order placed and paid for automatically without taking your phone out of your pocket or bag.
Beacons will also have a role in higher education. I am using a beacon app with my students to record attendance at lectures and tutorials and be able to interact with them during those lectures. We are planning to use beacons to serve as personalised electronic guides around the university which can advertise special offerings of food, entertainment or books.
A new way to pay
PayPal will be offering their own beacon hardware that they hope will make it easier for merchants to start using this technology. Tied to their smartphone app, PayPal are enabling mobile payment triggered by a beacon.
Apple is rumoured to be working on a payment system enabled through their iPhones. Up until now, they have not supported the obvious mechanism for mobile payments which is NFC, a technology found in many Android phones. It is possible that Apple will try to implement a payment system involving iBeacons although this would not fully integrate with tap and pay systems now operating.
There is a dark side but it is here anyway
The negative side of this is the sharing of identifying information along with location and other personal details. The retail industry especially are already collecting a wealth of information through consumers’ smartphones using free wifi for example. Switching this functionality on will not appeal to some people who are concerned with their privacy although some of the benefits could still be made available if the system was run anonymously.
Although Apple invented the concept of iBeacons and have the trademark, beacon technology does work with Google Android phones as well. It is this universal support for the majority of newer smartphones that will also help drive adoption of the technology.
Beacons enable personalisation of our environment and bring computer mediation into almost everything we do. This makes the smartphone even more important to how we interact with the outside world offering potentially a much richer experience, or a more scarier one, depending on your view.