Feature Story

The Growing Reach of Beacons: Are Users Ready?

by Kerry Doyle

Beacon technology has the potential to offer smart phone users a more interactive experience in a growing number of venues.

Beacons are tiny transmitters that offer the potential for richer, more useful and more interactive experiences in a variety of different venues, from travel and entertainment to transportation and healthcare. A number of companies have installed beacon technology and launched pilot programs to determine their effectiveness—and users' willingness to participate. However, according to a recent BI Intelligence report, beacon useage  is projected to grow 287 percent to five million by 2018.

Beacons rely on low energy Bluetooth to identify when a smart device is within proximity. If Bluetooth is enabled, a corresponding app on that user's device receives the information. Beacon transmitters are small and slim, easily mounted indoors or outdoors, able to cover a range of distances and can make it easier for users to receive very specific types of information.

For example, a person with the designated app checking in to a beacon-enabled hotel could automatically exchange information to bypass check-in. Keyless entry activated via the user's smartphone would make it possible to then open the door to an assigned room and enter. This is just one example of how the hospitality industry views the potential for beacon technology.

The Right Information at The Right Time

There are a number of other venues where smartphone users actually want more information to enhance their experience. In addition to sports stadiums, amusement parks and concerts, museums represent an ideal opportunity.

Recently, organizations such as the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. and The Guggenheim in New York City have installed beacon technology.

See Also: How Mobile Apps Are Helping the Public Sector

For these venues, instead of maintaining costly standalone narrative devices, relatively inexpensive beacons provide a more advanced contextual experience. For example, as smartphone users approach certain exhibits or works, a range of related information automatically appears on their phones.

Beacons also provide museum administrators with tracking data on where visitors spend most of their time..The data can also help design teams in creating more effective displays within galleries.

Optimizing traffic flow, providing information, and designing the most expeditious routes also appeals to airlines. Companies such as Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and AirFrance have initiated trials of beacon technology at major international airports. Beacons are capable of sending passengers personal travel details, including distance to gates, boarding times and the closest security check lines.

Beacons Take Aim at the Next-Generation Tech User

In 2014, beacon technology was deployed at the SXSW film and music festival to connect attendees to events and activities as never before. By downloading the official SXSW EventBase app, participants experienced seamless registration via Quick Codes that were automatically launched based on user proximity.

Beacons placed near venues provided smartphone users with event information, discussion sessions, and the location status of other attendees. Beacon technology helped generate a vast amount of social media content and enabled users to create instant and interest-based social networks on the fly.

Similarly, at the Coachella music festival, beacons alerted fans to unpublicized gigs and interviews. Event promoters at large venues and stadiums have also identified their messaging potential. In addition to seamless registration, beacons can send smartphone users site-specific notifications.

Beacons have been installed in 20 of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. From welcome messages to concession stand discounts, these beacons can also be used to send league-specific content and interactive features related to in-park exhibits.

Healthcare At Your Fingertips?

While the rise of beacon technology in healthcare offers possibilities in certain areas, it also faces hurdles in others. For example, a beacon activated by a downloadable app could relay medical records to a physician immediately upon entering a patient's room. Then remove those records to ensure security when the doctor leaves.

In addition, a range of hospital tasks could be simplified, from tracking equipment to alerting patients about upcoming procedures or forms that must be completed. Pharmacy visits could be streamlined through the instant exchange of prescription, authorization and patient information.

However, some hospitals have encountered problems implementing beacon technology for directions. Due to perimeter issues and variations in signal strength, beacons are less effective as GPS guidance for patients and visitors in hospital settings, unlike more open environments.

It turns out that slightly different variances in sensitivity between individual handsets and beacons can lead to difficulties in achieving a consistent user experience across devices. The same security issues that affect email can be extended to beacon messaging. Most users would prefer not to receive unsolicited messages related to medical conditions.

Overall, mobile deployment in hospital environments has proven to be somewhat problematic and, in some cases, a hindrance to staff procedures.

While choosing whether to receive beacon signals is every user's choice, beacons are far more than just dumb sensors. From a data focused and Internet of Everything (IoE) point-of-view, beacons represent the beginnings of hyper local immersive media.

Once the data sharing aspect is resolved, the social possibilities of adaptive media—media that responds to users—are striking. They represent a whole new way of publishing and connecting. Ultimately, beacons could become another key feature in our growing IoE world.


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