It’s been a while since I've commented on emerging technology so this week I thought I’d take a quick look at where we are with augmented reality (AR) and, in particular, iBeacon’s role in this space. There are many opinions out there addressing the benefits of location-based information and/or immersive experiences. However, a recurring theme seems to be the overwhelming reluctance to don a pair of glasses or goggles just to be transported to another world however augmented it may be. That said, there are plenty of people that believe AR will be transformational.

“When you think of any aspect of life or work, augmented reality is going to change how we do it.” – Ori Inbar, Augmented Reality.ORG

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   © Andreus / 123RF Stock Photo

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Ignoring industrial uses such as interactive 3D geological subsurface virtualisation, my view is that the glasses and goggles (eg Oculus VR) will stay firmly rooted in the world of geeks and gamers and maybe, for a while, provide other forms of short-lived entertainment enhancement (eg 3D movies). I note the Marriott Hotel chain have been experimenting with the “teleporter” booth (based on the Oculus Rift) which takes punters on a wild tour of beaches and building tops with the added dimension of wind and water spray to spice things up. Ultimately, though, this is part of a marketing campaign rather than adding anything to the quality of your experience during your stay.

By contrast, the idea behind Apple’s iBeacon and, now, Samsung’s Proximity is to provide a platform for enriching the way we engage with our environment through location and context-aware services. Both technologies are exploiting Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to allow strategically placed beacons to broadcast small packets of data (“Advertisements”) to nearby mobile phones and tablets. By nearby, we are talking tens of metres typically although there are long-range beacons that can extend this to 450m. Since the technology is distance sensitive, by using a mesh of beacons and simple triangulation techniques it is possible to very accurately determine your location (useful in places that struggle with GPS reception). Of course, you need to be running an app and have the relevant permissions set. Once that’s enabled, three levels of ‘proximity’ allow information to be segmented for different types of anticipated interaction. It should be noted that ‘the smarts’ reside in the app (and the device OS) and not in the beacons. They do not push information other than advertising their identity every 100ms.

iBeacons are relatively low cost ($5-$20 each), platform agnostic (having adopted an open standard) and can run for up to two years on a single coin battery [claimed by iBeacon makers Estimote]. GE is incorporating iBeacon functionality into LED lights so retailers won’t need to buy standalone beacons and I’d say we could safely assume that this type of integration will proliferate. All 254 Apple stores have iBeacons that work with an app that tracks your behaviour and makes (useful?) suggestions such as ‘time to upgrade’! Similarly, the Marriott Hotel chain is experimenting with time and location-sensitive, personalised offers to ‘LocalPerks’-enabled visitors.

All that aside, my interest in the iBeacons has less to do with retail and more to do with the provision of useful, contextual information in places such as zoos, museums and art galleries. Its potential as an educational aide is huge. Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is now using iBeacons to help visitors navigate and interact with facts, photos and audio files specifically related to what they are viewing at any give time. I don’t know about you but I often find the level of information provided in zoos and galleries to be somewhat terse and uninspiring. This system allows for much more control over the depth of information provided and could (should) be adapted to serve it up differently depending on the user profile (eg child or adult).

Rubens House Art Gallery in Antwerp is another example. They have integrated iBeacon technology with a rich iPad app that allows visitors to uncover unprecedented levels of detail for each piece of art and I expect this type of application will become ubiquitous over the next few years.

Brooklyn Museum is going beyond automated information to enhance the experience at a more personal level. They are rolling out an iBeacon deployment to support their ASK app that allows visitors to ask questions and receive a very precise response from an ‘audience engagement team’. Apparently their initial trial hit a few snags related to beacon detection and optimal positioning but the project is now surging ahead with more features planned.  

Aside from providing information, an iBeacon system can be used to trigger certain actions based on the dynamics of device proximity. Geohopper, for example, facilitates this kind of set-up and integrates with the OSX Notification Centre. Basically, it establishes an event-driven scripted response that might be tied to security, messaging or even control of an IoT-enabled device. Having said that, I can usually remember to turn off the lights or shout out “Hi, I’m home” without needing to automate it but perhaps there’s an application for the very young, elderly or infirm; assuming of course they can activate the ubiquitous mobile device and run the app. In fact, if you extrapolate that thought, what might be needed is to flip the architecture and have wearable beacons and wall-mounted devices running an (always on) app and feeding a centralised behaviour-monitoring control centre…hmmm, that’s starting to remind me of a certain book by George Orwell…

“It’s the real world ­– only better” – Jay Wright, Qualcomm Inc


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AuthorTrevor Lindars