by Owen Williams
Ever since Apple announced iBeacons at last year’s WWDC, the focus has been on how these tiny electronic devices can be used in retail. The potential is clear: retailers can get data on customers while sending them special offers at times when they’re most likely to buy.
It’s been discussed a lot, but beacons have potential far beyond that of retail. They could be deployed by almost every business; especially those at scale. Just about everyone has a smartphone now, so it makes sense to start using beacons for things other than offering coupons.
“There are limitless applications where a more precise location than GPS can provide is needed, said C.K. Sample, EVP of Technology and Engineering at Chaotic Moon Studios. “iBeacons are only limited by the reach of Bluetooth.”
KNOWING WHERE PEOPLE ARE (AND AREN’T)
One of the most obvious applications is for employee management. An auto manufacturer such as Ford could equip its factories with beacons and use them to track employees. By requiring workers to install a “timecard” app, they could automatically punch in and out whenever they pass a checkpoint.
This would also allow Ford to monitor how employees spend their time, helping the company quickly make staffing decisions since they know where everyone is at any point in time.
When relevant, factory management could use the beacons to push information to employees’ devices, including notifications about mandatory breaks, problems on the production line or important meetings they need to know about.
In education, there are already strides being made with beacons. A company called BeHere allows teachers to track which students have entered the classroom in a given day and create a roll of who was absent. Students are also able to request help from a teacher at any time by sending a notification back to the teacher’s iPad.
For hospitals and doctors, iBeacons have much to offer. Not only could doctors and hospitals use them to quickly bring up patient files as they enter a room — potentially saving critical seconds in a life-threatening situation — they could also push information about medication and how regularly to take it directly to patients’ phones.
PROVIDING THE RIGHT INFO – AT THE RIGHT TIME
Airlines like Delta could also take advantage of beacons to provide information on how to get around airports. When passengers are transferring planes, the airline could offer them directions in the form of beacon waypoints, notifying people how far they are from where they need to be.
On top of this, with enough devices in the airport, beacons could be used to quickly notify travelers about delays or changes in gate information. Other forms of public transport could also use beacons to their advantage, such as buses. Prospective riders could use an app to indicate where they want to go and approaching beacon-equipped buses would trigger an alert when they’re heading to the stated destination.
Similarly, museums and art galleries could place beacons throughout exhibits to provide quick, contextual information to visitors. Some museums have already started adopting the technology, too. Estimote recently touted that their iBeacons have been used at Antwerp’s Reubens House museum. Until now, cultural institutions have merely used QR codes or audio tours you rent from the ticket counter. There simply hasn’t been a technology that’s let museums automatically push relevant content at the exact right time.
This would be even more useful at an event, like a conference. If the entire conference venue was equipped with beacons, they could be used to provide precise indoor navigation information as attendees attempt to find rooms. This would make the conference-going experience much smoother for attendees and allow the organizers to see how attendees move around the site.
As these examples demonstrate, beacons can provide unprecedented means for people to interact with their environment. However, like a user’s GPS coordinates, their beacon location is considered private information. The value the service provides has to be good enough to get users to opt-in and share their location data. As with many new technologies, the challenge providers have is creating experiences that bring real value to people.
Expect to see a lot of experimentation with beacons as companies work to figure out the best use of this exciting new capability.