The Future of iBeacons

This is the concluding article in a series of articles on iBeacons (AKA Bluetooth Low Energy beacons), it discusses imminent changes to the way iBeacons work and presents some ideas on how things might develop in future.

iBeacons Today

Our last article covered the range of iBeacon applications that exist today in various industries. In the last year or so, the pace of deployment has been rapid and, more recently, there have been some interesting developments in the industry and the technology itself.

In July, kontakt.io received $2M investment from Sunstone capital, with venture capitalist Max Niederhofer of the company saying

Bluetooth Low Energy and iBeacon are the building blocks of the next wave of computing...

And, with a recent report predicting there will be a 60 million unit market in 2019, widespread adoption looks increasingly likely. Hardware costs per unit are also decreasing.

Whilst not building directly on iBeacon technology, Apple's recently announced mobile payments system is already going hand in hand with iBeacon deployments and this makes perfect sense given Apple's support for the platform, and the fact that it extends the retailers' connection with their customers from the point of sale to their whole shopping experience.

What is Changing

In a previous article we explained that (at least) 90% of iPhone users are able to use iBeacon, a significantly higher figure than for Android users (around 18%), and Apple have led the way in making subtle changes to remove potential barriers to iBeacon app usage.

This hints at more operating system level support, and one could imagine actions being triggered in a more automated way than at present. iOS 8 already prompts users about iBeacon apps and this could be extended such that beacons could act as operating system-level triggers.

The need for a dedicated app is currently a barrier to entry for smaller outfits - could the operating system and web browser combine to remove the need for a dedicated app? This is a little like web notifications that are implemented by a number of browsers, though notably none of the mobile browsers yet. As an example - eBay can alert me via my installed desktop browser (but outside of any web page) about items I'm watching that are ending, on mobile this could remove the need for a dedicated app to receive such notifications and we could imagine something similar for iBeacon-related alerts and content.

It may also be significant that Apple has changed the way their devices connect to wifi, meaning that they can no longer be identified and tracked in that way. This means that beacons are the only way to physically track users at a location.

New Types of Beacon

Will beacons themselves change? Current indications are that they will certainly evolve.

Estimote recently announced stickers that function as iBeacons, with additional temperature and motion sensors enabling new applications. It's intended that they can be attached to moving objects that could then be tracked as they passed monitoring stations, or whilst they're in an app user's vicinity (like packages, or children for example!)

Kontakt.io are releasing cloud beacons including wifi connectivity. This allows these beacons to transmit analytics data and provide a gateway for managing other regular beacons in their vicinity. However, wifi requires power and they must be plugged in to a power outlet, or at least recharged regularly.

These developments maintain backwards compatibility but it's likely the strain between adding functionality and maintaining standards compliance will likely increase as vendors try to differentiate themselves in a market where hardware costs per unit are rapidly heading towards negligible.

Users Become Moving Beacons

Apple devices can already act as iBeacons themselves - transmitting information just like a mobile beacon. Few apps have built on this yet, but it means that app users can be constantly announcing their presence and (masked) identity.

Mingleton uses this feature for location-based personal connections, and many such applications for conferencing and events can be imagined.

A New Network

Venture capitalist Max Niederhofer further commented on his company's investment in Kontakt.io:

...I see this as an infrastructure build-out play, where Beacons are the routers and pipes of a new network infrastructure on which we’ll see some very interesting applications.

...From a VC perspective, this is a bit like Cisco in the late 80s. We’re building the hardware and software that is the backbone of the new network.

This may seem like exaggeration, but given

  • large scale deployment of geo-located iBeacons and others attached to known things,
  • a large base of beacon-enabled apps, and
  • the ability for users of those apps to transmit as well as receive beacon data,

it's certainly tempting to consider a new type of global network, working in conjunction with those that exist today.

This could be viewed as a geographical layer for the web, enhancing context with location; and extends the Internet of Things beyond powered devices requiring wired or wifi internet connections.

Beacon manufacturer Radius Networks has an app that allows users to submit beacon locations, and over 150,000 such locations have been mapped, giving an indication of geographical distribution of beacon deployments today.

Beacon Services

With the deployment of a new type of infrastructure, there will be a rise in companies providing complementary services. For example:

  • Beacon battery and outage monitoring, along with replacement.
  • Internal mapping and beacon locating (using devices like Google's project tango tablet).
  • Optimisation of beacon networks.
  • Cataloging of located beacon identifiers (for use by competitors, for example).

Real-World Analytics

It's already possible to track visitors to beacon-enabled places to provide data on routes taken and so on. This could let retailers optimise layouts for sales, galleries identify popular as well as less-visited exhibits and malls identify shopping patterns.

This is analogous to the situation when website owners had only their web logs for analysis. It might have seemed crazy then to suggest that a company could secure a presence on the majority of websites, such that they could track visitors between them - but that's exactly what Google did by offering analytics (in combination with other products). An even crazier suggestion might have been offering your potential competitors space on your website, but that's now common via online advertising (in simplistic terms).

Another analogy from the web would be the move from company- or niche-specific forums and communities to mass adoption of a few social media sites as the places to share information and discuss common interests, and even for companies to manage their customer relations.

Similar developments are likely in geographical analytics - if a compelling enough service is offered, companies may give up data on their own beacon networks and physical customer movements such that they can gain wider intelligence than they would otherwise be able to. This would come from the aggregation of data about many beacon installations.

Taking this to an unlikely conclusion - imagine a retailer being able to target promotions at competitors' customers whilst at known locations in their stores. Or a brand being able to target customers whilst viewing their products at a range of retailers.

It could be that sectors other than retail (where commercial sensitivity is less of an issue), or collection of only anonymised data will provide greater opportunities for such aggregated applications.

Beyond Single Apps to Meta-Apps

Currently, specific companies or organisations create their own beacon installations, and integrate beacon-enabled features into their own mobile apps. however, this is not scalable to take full advantage of the potential of the new network described above - smaller stores, venues and other locations will not have their own mobile apps, and even if they did, consumers would be deluged with niche location-aware apps.

As touched on above, the concept of aggregation is so powerful that what we will term meta-apps are going to be in the strongest position to give most convenience and utility for users, and the most valuable data for businesses. The term arises from comparisons with (for example) meta search engines such as comparison websites for financial products, travel and so on. These take data from many individual websites to provide an aggregated service and data - offering consumers the best deals, and businesses new sales channels and data.

This can already been seen in a limited way amongst the many shopping malls who have implemented iBeacons. They can potentially provide better services to visitors across all of their tenant retailers in a single app. There have also been a number of local applications, aggregating the retailers in a particular geographic area (the Brixton pound app for example).

Retail

We've explained that the highly competitive nature of retail doesn't necessarily prevent meta-apps emerging and there are already signs of this trend developing.

InMarket’s Mobile to Mortar product claims that it can reach 40M shoppers via Earth's Largest iBeacon Network across locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. InMarket doesn't have its own consumer app, but has arrangements with other app owners to embed the technology and thereby provide a conduit to consumers (such as CheckPoints and Epicurious).

Other companies pursuing similar tactics include Shopkick, Vente Privee in France and Appflare in the UK, targeting convenience stores.

Other meta-type companies in retail such as QuidCo would be well placed to use iBeacon networks (they already offer some location-based features via GPS).

Other Industries

It's easy to envisage similar meta-style apps for other industries. For example:

  • Services for travellers taking advantage of iBeacon installations across airports and other transit locations.
  • With networks of beacons in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, new types of app for socialising are enabled, providing joined-up data and services for venues and patrons alike.
  • Beacon-enabled sports venues could facilitate new meta apps for sports fans, who travel to different team venues.
  • An app for iBeacon-enabled museums, galleries and other cultural venues could provide personalised tours, and use your visiting and viewing habits to suggest new exhibitions and events, as well as providing footfall data.

New Types of Application

The applications described above are of a familiar type, taken to their logical meta conclusions. however, completely new types of application could also be possible.

For example, in the same way that Google's mapping efforts enabled revolutionary applications, aggregated information about iBeacon networks on a large scale could facilitate assistants for the visually impaired, providing guidance at any iBeacon-enabled location and internal navigation - providing route finding in unfamiliar (iBeacon-enabled) buildings.

Conclusion

We've tried to give a sense of where iBeacon is heading in the near future, and some thoughts on how the technology and its applications might develop in the longer term.

The pace of deployment, and perceived value to consumers of the apps that emerge, will be crucial over the next year or so in securing widespread adoption for iBeacon applications. Businesses must prioritise service and utility for users in the short term, if they are to realise the potential gains of a new location-aware channel and the data it generates going forward.

If you'd like to discuss an iBeacon application, get in touch!