iBeacon and Why Apple Streaming Music Might Be Free

Apple can make its streaming music service free. And it’s because of iBeacon.

The New York Times reports that industry analysts are predicting a tough climb for the company’s new streaming music service. Apple will need to shift from the pay-to-download model of iTunes toward the all-you-can-eat-buffet of streaming music. And in doing so, it will need to get the support of a music industry that can now turn to Pandora, Spotify or other services to push back on pricing and access.

But these reports are looking for the Apple advantage in all the wrong places – focusing on apps and pricing, iTunes and vivid visuals.

And while those things might be important, Apple has advantages that other streaming services don’t.

This includes access to a platform for music which is larger than the Web and bigger than mobile – a platform made possible, in part, by iBeacons.

Apple Is – Gasp! Not The First-Mover

According to Toni Sacconaghi, a financial analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, Apple is late to the game.

“They’re used to being a shaper rather than a responder,” Mr. Sacconaghi said. “This is one of the few times where Apple is playing catch-up and not necessarily coming from a position of strength.”

Which makes me wonder what universe Sacconaghi is analyzing, exactly.

History has shown the opposite, of course. The entire Apple business model is based on coming late to the game – letting others get there first and arriving later with far superior products, whether music players, tablets, phones or watches.

If there’s a company on the planet who has shown it knows how to excel at coming second it’s Apple.

Regardless, the media seems happy to create a narrative in which there’s a good old-fashioned showdown between entrenched players like Spotify and the “newcomer” which is Apple.

Is The Apple Advantage an Interface?

These reports predict that Apple might have a shot because…well, because it will have a shiny interface:

The new music app, which is a collaborative effort between Mr. Reznor and other Apple and Beats employees, including Jimmy Iovine — who founded Beats with the hip-hop star Dr. Dre — will feature the streaming music service with many of the same characteristics as the Beats Music streaming service, one Apple employee said. Those may include curated playlists and a more vivid visual appeal, while conforming to Apple’s sleek and minimal design aesthetic, one person said. The name Beats Music will most likely be shed.

More vivid visuals. A minimal design aesthetic.

I can hear Jony Ive now, luxuriating over how every single pixel is perfect, hand drawn from molten gold with every musical note optimized down to nanogradients of sound.

The larger Apple advantage isn’t, of course, an interface. (iTunes has survived just fine even in its current incarnation as a benchmark for horrible UX design).

Apple’s advantage is its ecosystem, from the hardware to software, continuity between devices, and connectivity to your iPad, Apple TV or coming Watch.

If nothing else, Apple could drive a user experience which adapts a music stream based on whether you’re running or working out, can shift a stream from your iPhone to your home speakers with the flick of your thumb, and connect the mood of your music to the Philips lighting in your living room.

This ecosystem on its own, in addition to 800 million iTunes users, can give Apple an edge, regardless of the monthly price.

But there’s another frontier worth considering and it has nothing to do with the device in your pocket or the technology in your home. Because elsewhere the physical world is becoming a digital interface.

And streaming music could, one day, be embedded in things, with iBeacon showing us the way.

iBeacon and The Battle for Physical Space

iBeacon is Apple’s trademark term for Bluetooth Low Energy devices. By sending out a small radio signal, beacons allow our phones and other devices to “see” the world around them.

Beacons are being used in museums and public gardens, shopping malls and parking lots. They let the owner of a “place” send out a push message, a coupon, a piece of media or a special offer to a user’s phone via a ‘beacon-enabled’ mobile app.

Unlike NFC or QR codes, the user doesn’t need to do anything. Their app can be closed but their phone will still listen for beacons.

You can trigger a lock screen message or your app can just be a lot smarter when a user opens it up – sensing nearby beacons in order to present contextually relevant content.

Beacons represent one technology amongst many that are enabling digital interactions with physical space. Anything you can do online can now be triggered by people, places and things. You can “Pin” a store display, Tweet a painting in a museum, or browse a catalogue in the hardware store.

Often conflated with the Internet of Things (which generally refers to the ability of sensors and devices to talk to each other) they nonetheless represent a larger trend towards a fully connected physical world in which billboards know who you are (Minority Report style) and products on a shelf can talk.

Unlocking the Value of Proximity

This convergence of the physical world with digital affordances represents what we think is a platform that will be larger than the Web, which will be more disruptive than mobile, and which will enables new forms of value creation that weren’t previously possible.

With beacons we can link media, content, data and social interaction to the “last meter” of human experience. We can create digital engagement at the point of purchase, we can nudge users from one gallery to another in a museum, we can connect how we live, work and play to increasingly smart and data-driven systems.

This opportunity is both massive and massively frightening.

The convergence of the digital and physical worlds leads to self-driving cars and delivery drones, an apocalypse of artificial intelligence and the benefits of medical research conducted at massive scale.

It also unlocks value that was previously either unavailable, obfuscated or difficult: because if I can connect what you do on a phone to your presence in physical space, if I can connect a piece of media to the point of purchase, it means I can create a connection between digital media and physical activity or product purchases.

It’s this convergence which could both lead to a ‘renaissance of retail’ and its (even more) massive disruption.

In a future of beacons, we’ll see the “AirBnB of grocery” and the “Uber of retail”.

And we’ll see how things like music won’t just be portable. Their value will be embedded in everything.

The Next Big Apple Play is Loyalty

OK, I hate the term loyalty. Because most loyalty programs aren’t about loyalty. They’re transaction-based rewards for purchasing stuff.

I hate the idea of a product called called Apple Loyalty – it sounds like an airline rewards card or a bonus system for owning a ton of Apple devices (buy 10 iPhones and get a free Beats headphone!).

But if there was a company that was going to reinvent the concept of “loyalty” who better than the company that knows something about loyalty? And who better than a company leading the charge on mobile payments, with a growing infrastructure of merchants and payment providers, with the ability for stores to register their locations, and with the software tools to make beacon-detection part of the retail landscape?

Think of it this way:

  • You have two coffee shops near each other
  • One accepts Apple Pay, has iBeacon installed, lets you order in advance, makes the experience of buying your cappuccino frictionless
  • It also has a system in place where you show up, buy a coffee, and your Apple streaming music account is topped up or you’re able to pick up a recommendation from the staff or others who have visited the store

Or imagine going to a concert at a local club and there’s a “powered by Apple Music” sign at the front entrance.

You join a pop-up social network, you share some of your favorite Apple Music streams with fans nearby.

And once you leave your Apple Music account has been personalized, you have access to exclusive band interviews or raw clips from their last recording session, and your streaming costs for the month have been reduced by half because the concert promoter kicked back an account top-up with your ticket purchase.

An Apple patent for iBeacon imagines concerts as venues for media delivery:

Apple’s patent FIG. 15C indicates various location-based content that may be provided in connection with a concert or other music venue. A concert or music venue may provide content including, for example, music, setlists, virtual cards, website information, schedule information (e.g., for upcoming shows at the venue), graphics (e.g., album art, pictures of the band members, etc.), ticket sales (e.g., provide user option to purchase tickets in advance), general information relating to the concert, or any other information.

It’s not loyalty in the traditional sense. It isn’t about transactions it’s about experiences.

And it leverages the power of beacons: because for the first time, physical venues have a financial incentive and an ability to measure digital interactions against real-world behaviour.

If I own the coffee shop and I become an Apple Loyalty location I’m doing it because I can drive more foot traffic to my store compared to the one down the street. The fact that you as the customer get rewarded with Apple Music, if you get a bonus song instead of $2 off your next purchase, so much the better. I’d rather reward you with something you LOVE anyways instead of reducing your bill the next time you visit.

The coffee shop wins. Apple Music wins because it gets more “listens”. And the consumer wins because someone else is partly footing my music bill, and their experience of “place” becomes more deeply grounded in their digital and physical life.

iBeacon, Apple Pay and Apple “Loyalty” are simply the facilitating technologies which will help to triangulate our digital lives, our physical visits, and the interests of the places that we go.

Apple Everywhere

Apple isn’t alone in wanting to own the path you take through the world.

While Apple is focused on closed ecosystems and what I think of as “deeply connected” experiences, Google is coming at the same challenge from a different direction – using the “cloud” to provide an always-on, “deeply ambient” suite of technologies to help guide you through space.

Best typified by Google Now and Google Waze, their goal is to quietly collate where you go and how long you visit with its massive data sets in order to predict and present content that will become increasingly smarter and smarter. Google will know where you’re going before you’ve even decided yourself.

For Apple, the future is smart devices connected to relatively dumb “clouds” (an idea reaffirmed by Tim Cook’s focus on privacy).

For Google, the future is a smart cloud connected to relatively dumb devices.

But both are on a path to take your experience of them out of your pocket and into your home, into the stores you visit and into the music you listen to, television you watch, and games you play.

Beacons are part of this larger journey – dumb devices against which value can be assigned, music unlocked, experiences created, with the result being an absolute blurring of the lines between our digital personas and our physical bodies as they move through space.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

What do you think? Will Apple Music be more than just another version of ‘streaming beats’? How might it connect to Apple loyalty, Apple Pay and iBeacon? Drop a comment below.

Be The Force: Beacons as Moral Agents

The story of technology swings from narratives of hope to a kind of collective despair and anxiety.

We create myths out of people who walk around in faded jeans and hoodies and in the next breath have nightmares about robots taking over our factories, our homes, our cities, our collective conscience.

We revere Steve Jobs or envy Mark Zuckerberg and then imagine the grip technology has on our children and worry about what it will do for their brains, their sense of creativity, their future job prospects.

The Tech World Looks Inward

For the past few weeks, the tech community itself has been gripped by a kind of angst-driven navel-gazing, not without merit, but also not for the first time.

Confounded by success stories that often come coupled with acts of hubris and sleaze, the tech world is like the kid in the school yard who’s asked by his teacher: “Why didn’t you DO something to stop the bullying” and is left struggling for words.

Elon Musk is worried that artificial intelligence will escape into the wild and cause our extinction. Peter Thiel (the very definition of “techy” and eccentric) thinks that Silicon Valley just doesn’t GET how the rest of the world fears change, fears digital transformation.

But it’s not just technology itself which is the cause of the current angst. The Valley (and beyond) has some accounting to do.

Here in Toronto, a truly diverse city, the tech industry has a diversity problem.

Uber is a frat club that collects a massive amount of data on its users and threatens to take-down journalists.

It leaves Nick Bilton at the New York Times wondering whether, in the absence of the investors stepping in, that government might:

Mr. MacDonald noted that part of the problem with tech companies is that, from a financial perspective, there is no incentive to do the right thing. Companies like Uber or Facebook have done the wrong thing in the past and still grown at staggering rates. But, he said, when companies go too far, there are two outcomes: either customers will find an alternative or regulators, with enough public outcry, could break up the party.

What Tech Gets Wrong

But there’s a logical fallacy at the heart of how most people in the tech industry think about technology.

They believe that fears of technology itself are misplaced.

Peter Thiel is the perfect example and embodies a kind of blinkered mind set that is all-too endemic to The Valley.

It’s an attitude that says that people are, well, basically stupid – they fear change, fear technology, and its our job as guardians of the cult/the guild to at least recognize how angst and fear-plagued the common man is.

The rest of the world hasn’t had a chance to taste the Kool Aid, but give them time, be more sensitive, they’ll see the light eventually.

If there’s a fault of technology it’s not the technology that’s to blame. It’s the people.

In this view, if Silicon Valley has faults, it’s not the tech which we should hold accountable but a few bad apples. It’s the misogynist founder or the frat boy CEO whose ruthless pursuit of success leaves a trail of scandals in his wake.

Empathy and Emotion In a World of Code

Om Malik, no slouch when it comes to thinking about technology, writes that it’s time for tech industry to add emotion and empathy to its products:

Having watched technology go from a curio to curiosity to a daily necessity, I can safely say that we in tech don’t understand the emotional aspect of our work, just as we don’t understand the moral imperative of what we do. It is not that all players are bad; it is just not part of the thinking process the way, say, “minimum viable product” or “growth hacking” are.

But it is time to add an emotional and moral dimension to products. Companies need to combine data with emotion and empathy or find themselves in conflict with those they deem to serve.

What Om perhaps doesn’t explicitly state is that the moral dimension of technology isn’t just embodied in how we use technology. It’s deeply embodied in how we build it.

And it’s embodied in our concept of who we “deem to serve”. Our focus is usually on the individual user. On growth rates and trajectories, sure, but mostly on doing what we can to release new features that will appeal to specific users.

This leaves us often ignoring the larger cultural dimension of what we build.

Boundaries and Features Build Our Moral Character

Technology isn’t devoid of moral choice, of ethical decisions, of emotion or empathy. It isn’t a neutral actor waiting for someone to pick it up and do either good or evil.

Technology itself has built-in boundaries and was shaped based on decisions that may have, at the time, seemed like purely aesthetic or user-driven functions but which on reflection had a moral dimension.

The Internet might be a set of features, but what was built in (or left out) has had an impact that lingers to this day.

Walter Isaacson outlines some of these dimensions in his new book The Innovators and we learn that many of the Net’s founders still regret that back-linking and the capacity for transactions wasn’t built right into the web.

These are things that might seem at first glance like features but which were also an implicit choice about the meaning of authority, transparency, exchange and the commercial value of content.

Features are what a user sees. The moral dimension of technology is what happens when those features move beyond the individual user into the larger cultural context of society.

The fact that the technologist was building for features and users doesn’t decouple them from the social context in which that technology takes hold.

Silicon Valley gives good lip service to that larger dimension. Every company is, after all, out to save/change/disrupt/transform the world.

Yet there’s often little connection between the CEO giving good press about the better world we’re all supposedly headed to, and the engineering team who are just trying to ship the damn product, and probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the cultural and moral dimension of what seem like a few simple lines of code.

The Moral Imperative of the Internet of Things

Today, we see a similar tug between different value systems as the Internet of Things begins its march.

From data-driven monster networks whose purpose is to collate trillions of data points to concepts of control, usability and opacity in the connected home there’s a battle for the next digital frontier.

While it may come disguised as feature sets, the decisions being baked in to connected products now will have an inescapable moral dimension in the years to come.

It’s easy to focus on whether a connected product can adjust the temperature of your home. It’s harder to focus on the cultural and moral dimension of buildings that know we’re present, of physical spaces that detect we’re around, of objects that can listen and ambient signals and sensors that are slowly starting to reshape physical spaces in real-time.

On the real-time web, your Facebook feed changes based on a thousand little signals – who your friends are, what cookies you have stored on your machine, what sites you’ve visited and who you’ve chatted with on WhatsApp.

On the Internet of Things, the number of signals will be profoundly greater.

And instead of it being just a web page whose content changes based on those signals, physical space itself will become increasingly fluid, flexible, real-time and data-driven. The products on the shelf in the morning will be different from the afternoon, stores will become “Uber-ized”, the boundaries between offline and online purchasing will disappear.

Beacons Aren’t Neutral Observers

And beacons are playing a leading role in how those first steps towards the digitization of physical space proceeds.

They’re bloody harmless looking things. They don’t do very much, really. They broadcast a signal.

And yet already, the moral character of beacons is becoming rapidly embedded.

Now, you may work with beacons or know someone who does. But when was the last time you talked about the cultural importance of beacons, their ethical dimension, the moral choices implicit in their design?

Sure, maybe we talk a bit about consumer privacy – “But beacons don’t COLLECT anything!”

In other words we use the same line as everyone else in the tech industry: it’s not the tech itself which is to blame, it’s the people who misuse it.

It’s still early days for these little devices. There’s a ton of innovation, from the chip set up to the ‘cloud’.

And within those innovations, we’re seeing a set of features being developed which, in the collective, will lead to limits and boundaries on future developers and users that will embody the field of moral and emotional limits that beacons represent.

Beacons Embody Belief

Now, I’m not sure the designers of the devices ever thought about the implicit assumptions they were making in their development.

They’re just trying to ship great products.

But having said that, I’ve come to know (and respect) a lot of the innovators in the beacon field.

And I can see their personalities and beliefs built into their products:

  • For Estimote, the design, the casing, the tactile feeling of the beacon implies a belief that they have a visible role in our physical landscape
  • At Radius Networks, there’s a collective wisdom in the crowd, in shared code, in granular tools which can be assembled at every-higher levels of complexity
  • For the Wireless Registry, beacons and devices need to be able to authentically claim “I’m here, and I’m who I say I am” (although reconciling that vision to the motivations of device-makers will be a tough tough slog)
  • Kontakt keeps extending its vision of a tightly engineered and coupled cloud,  a kind of technocracy of code
  • Gimbal is building ubiquity and security with itself as the gatekeeper of the nodes
  • Google is trying to advance the notion of the physical web, treating beacons as just another URL that gets collated to the larger cloud
  • Samsung sees beacons as commerce. (Right now, anything that gives them a commercial edge is likely driving a lot of decision-making)

And these examples are just a smattering of the innovation being built around beacons.

Every project we see, if you scratch deep enough, embeds cultural choice and assumption, whether in concepts of push vs ambient computing, the value of information versus social exchange, or in how a developer views whether connected spaces replace, enhance or disrupt traditional ideas of physical design.

Even beneath all of this innovation, these amazing cultural viewpoints, beacons themselves have built-in assumptions:

  • The right to pair securely or openly broadcast
  • The right to be uniquely identified
  • The right to sit to the side of, but become embedded with, other Internet-based technologies

Bluetooth LE itself has made assumptions about its own moral dimensions – unwittingly, perhaps, but it’s there nonetheless.

They make assumptions about being able to tag ownership (through an ID name space), apply base assumptions to concepts of quality of life (through profiles covering things like heart rate monitoring) and defer issues of accountability and data ownership to other parts of the stack.

Beacons might not do a lot but the beacon protocols, the devices, the apps being built on top – each of them is coming loaded up with features and specifications that were built by people who have their own unique cultural prism.

Culture and Taste on the Internet of Things

“They don’t bring much culture into their product”.

Which isn’t, I don’t think, a statement about aesthetics. It’s a statement about emotion and empathy.

Om’s rallying cry deserves repeating: “It is time to add an emotional and moral dimension to products”.

Sean Gourley asks us to look at Big Data and think about stories:

“Data needs stories, but stories also need data. Data, when its put up in front of you as a number, it gets stripped of the context of where the data came from, the biases inherent in it, and the assumptions of the models that created it.”

But let me rephrase that statement for a world of beacons:

“The Internet of Things needs a narrative because it isn’t JUST about data or devices or code. Beacons can’t be stripped of the context in which they’re placed, we can’t ignore the biases inherent in their design or the assumptions built into the models that make their creation possible.”

The Internet had no built-in mechanism for verified identity, no way to pay for content, no reciprocity in links. You can’t understand the cultural and moral dimension of the Internet without understanding the biases upon which it was built.

And now with beacons, we’re already trending towards a world in which certain things are taken for granted: that “the cloud” will always be the leading paradigm, that transactional value will always be an add-on to the default tech stack rather than built into its DNA, that data matters more than stories, that apps are all there will ever be, that the physical world will always look like it looks today.

The Stories We’ll Tell

We’re creating a narrative about beacons. But as an industry we should continue to question, push, probe and extend the limits of what that narrative should be.

Because if we aren’t careful, the moral, cultural and social impact of the tech we’re all playing a role in creating will become ‘baked in’ without us really noticing.

And years from now we’ll blame the people using the technology instead of holding ourselves accountable for how the technology was built in the first place.

Beacons are representative of what I deeply believe will be a wave of technology that is exponentially more transformative than the Internet to date.

But there isn’t some secret group out there, there isn’t some governing body, there isn’t a team of people thinking deep thoughts about what it all means who will publish their conclusions one day.

You are it.

You’re the one shaping it. You’re the one whose decisions today will have a profound impact years or decades from now:

The shift from a generation that started out un-connected to one that is growing up connected will result in conflicts, disruption, and eventually the redrawing of our societal expectations. The human race has experienced these shifts before — just not at the speed and scale of this shift.

The guardians of that shift are you.

Ship great product. Make lots of money. Build cool stuff.

But let’s also take a moment to recognize the cultural stories our devices will tell, the limits or assumptions we’re building into our designs, and how well we express empathy and emotion in the simplest looking little beacon we build, tool we develop, SDK we launch, or experience we design. In other words:

Be The Beacon.

Share Your Thoughts

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Thoughts? Comments? Drop them below.

iWatch, iBeacon and What's Wrong With Wearables

iWatch Concept from Charlie No

When you working with iBeacon technology, the coming generation of wearable devices seems like a natural extension to how you think about user experiences.

What better place, after all, to push a welcome message triggered by a beacon than to your wrist? If you’re not asking your customer to take their phone out of their pocket every 15 seconds as they wander the aisles of the grocery store, surely you can increase information and message density if all they need to do is glance at their watch?

But just like the earliest press reports and experiments with iBeacon technology were mostly clumsy and focused on a narrow set of use cases, the way we view smart watches is partly wrong and is focused more on the retailer, hardware maker, or ad platform than on the actual person who needs to wear the thing.

What a Watch Means

I still remember my first watch. It looked kind of stylish with a gold edge and clean white face and serif font symbols. Wearing it made me feel – well, adult, I guess.

I suppose it was a status symbol – although I come from a generation where you didn’t measure your peers by the kinds of sneakers they had, so it was probably a less blatant symbol than a smart watch might be today. But it was certainly a marker – it said to ME, at least, that I had passed a border into some kind of pseudo adult world of responsibility and ornamentation.

To that end, Forbes speculates that the recent hiring blitz for wearables talent at Apple means they’re about to become a fashion company, ready to launch a luxury brand:

I contend that Apple is in the process of building a brand strategy that will make the smartwatch in general and the iWatch in particular ubiquitous in the high-end retail environment and in popular culture. Through this positioning all of the utility promised for health, fitness and contextual information will be delivered—but that is the cart not the horse.

And while this might seem obvious to the general consumer (a watch should look beautiful, should convey more than utility) it isn’t always obvious to tech-obsessed engineering focused companies like Google or Amazon. As Khoi Vin neatly summarizes:

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

The Control of Time

But my watch was also something else. While perhaps illusory, it was also a symbol of control. It gave me the chance to have personal control over The Time.

It meant I could manage it, segment it, keep an eye on it. Being able to “Watch The Time” was now personal, and I had the tool to do so.

In my generation, time was perhaps the defining anxiety. Popular culture imagined “a time” when we’d have more time for leisure and would need to dedicate less time to work. Technology was imagined as a time saver – meals could be prepared faster with microwaves, houses could be cleaned faster, we’d need to spend less time at the office. We were on the cusp of a society-wide leisure class, where time would be released because of technology and would give us more time for the things we love.

We were trying to shake the boundaries of time. Live longer, enjoy more, work less. Technology would make it possible.

But instead, time took second position to a new anxiety, a new obsession.

We don’t talk about time anymore – other than as subservient to a new age of anxiety, one driven by information. Time has been lost because we have to deal with too much information. Time isn’t the end game, the thing to be controlled.

Instead, it’s data we wrestle with: too much information, too many e-mails, too many tweets and wall posts and pins, too many late night text messages from our boss and too many feeds we feel we need to keep on top of.

We once wrestled with, dreaded and remained hopeful that we could control time. Now, we wrestle with, dread and remain hopeful that we can, somehow, control the flow of information.

We worship at the altar of the cloud, of Big Data, and information becoming smarter. But this comes coupled with anxieties over surveillance, information overload, and desperately looking for a new tool, a new dashboard, a new way to deal with the deluge of data.

iBeacon: Programmed to Receive

Bluetooth LE beacons are simple. They send out small packets of data which your phone receives and can then act upon.

From this paradigm, the design of user experiences seems to follow a natural progression to ‘pushing’ data and information to a customer based on proximity.

But as I’ve long argued on this blog, beacons very quickly challenge UX designers to think about user experiences in new ways:

  • How many messages are too many?
  • How do you trade off ambient and ‘push’ experiences?
  • If beacons are triggers to real world people, places and things – how does the physical world itself need to change to enable to user experience?
  • What happens when you have more than one beacon? What happens when people (like shop assistants) are beacons too?
  • How do you juggle the fact that a phone can detect more information density than a typical consumer – especially when you combine the information density of a phone with the visual density of a physical place?

And yet the current generation of smart watches treat the wrist as an extension of the “receive/broadcast” paradigm.

They’re just another screen that’s programmed to receive – whether ads, push notices, or directions to work.

Driven primarily by companies with a vested interest in creating more advertising space, wearables are treated primarily as another screen that’s meant to receive.

In contrast, health wearables like Fitbit or Nike Fuel are data collection engines. Ostensibly acting to motivate and measure, to give you a sense of control over the amount of exercise you do, the number of calories you burn, or the number of hours you sleep – they walk a difficult line between providing this sense of control and just adding to the problem – more data to parse in your already information-saturated day.

Smart watches are another ad screen (albeit with lots of other stuff wrapped around that idea). And health wearables are data gathering engines programmed to create more data on your phone, tablet or PC.

More data, more information, and less time.

A Clean, Well-Lit Space

In a seminal interview about virtual worlds seven years ago, Eben Moglen, an IBM fellow, spoke about the challenges of digital space on our sense of privacy and control:

I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self…We understood when the Soviet Empire decayed that all over it were places where people felt trapped in webs of surveillance and betrayal and interaction that had a kind of sinister feeling even if there is no Gulag and there is no shooting. And many of us feel very uncomfortable with the changes in the society we live in the United States in the past several years where for us there is no Gulag, no shooting, no being swept away with out charges.

Social contracts ought to be available in a machine readable form which allows the (user) to know exactly what the rules are and to allow you set effective guidelines about I don’t go to spaces where people don’t treat me in ways that I consider to be crucial in my treatment.

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got (a profile) that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

This concept of a clean, well-lit space has resonated with me for years.

And thinking of it now, it reminds me of my first watch: a device that gave me a sense of control, a clean interface to something over which I might not be able to change, but I could at least learn to accommodate, to live with, to manage.

The current generation of wearable devices might give me more information, and the data it presents might even be smarter…but measuring its utility (as Google did in launching its wearables platform) in the number of times I won’t need to take my phone out of my pocket (or the ability to order pizza) is a less compelling emotional story than my first watch – which gave me control over time itself.

Will The iWatch Transmit or Receive?

I have no idea what Apple has planned for its iWatch, obviously. But knowing their history in carefully balancing consumer trust, privacy and experience on the one hand, and developer tools and flexibility on the other, I expect them to tackle this issue of control in an Apple-like way.

Now, clearly, an iWatch will receive. It will be a screen. And a few months ago I would have imagined that its primary purpose would be to offload push messaging, step tracking, heart rate monitoring, music controls and other functions from the phone to the wrist. (And all of these things will likely be true).

But there’s potentially another paradigm in place – one that will be recognized by those who think long and hard about beacons. Because in addition to being another screen, data capture device and interface controller, I think the real value of an iWatch could come from someplace else.

Because what if, much like beacons, the iWatch was less a receiving screen and instead was more like a broadcaster? What if your watch was, like a beacon, a way to signal to the world around you: “I’m here, and here are the permissions I’m giving you, here are the rules of my being in this space, and if I choose to I’ll share my identity or let you send me messages and communicate.”

In this view, an iWatch (and other future wearables) shouldn’t just be a screen programmed to receive.

It’s a wearable form of identity and intent.

It lets the world know what you want to do today, what kinds of friends you want to say hello to, what kind of relationship you want with the store or the gym, what kind of cashless transactions you want to participate in, and what your rules are for clean, well-lit rooms.

Power, connection, control, a sense of self, a tool to shift the balance from the broadcaster back to the receiver. And maybe it will look cool too.

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iBeacon for Health: With BLE, a Nudge Will Do

Project Boundary wants to make you healthier.

By placing beacons at key locations, it encourages you to make better choices based on proximity, using gamification to reward participants.

A beacon at an elevator, for example, can send a message encouraging you to take the stairs instead. Do so and unlock the mountaineer achievement and get feedback for making the right decision.

Project Boundary was an entry in the SmartAmerican Challenge, a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow project. The initiative uses Gimbal beacons and the Spark Compass platform to send messages that encourage healthier choices as you move through your day.

The project doesn’t just hold lessons for health and wellness – it’s a reminder that in this new era of contextual and proximity experiences, moving the needle can happen through a collection of small nudges.

In the past, I’ve called this the ‘seductive layer of the Internet of Everything’: a view to experience design that eschews big gestures and heavy-handed coupons or in-your-face advertising for a series of smaller gestures based on context.

We engage, suggest, provide contextually-relevant media. And if we do it right, we can encourage shifts in behavior.

You might not get everyone through the door with your beacon-driven push messages. But increase your foot traffic by 3-4% and it can make a big difference to your bottom line.

Small Nudges, Big Differences

Erik Bjontegard Presents at the SmartAmerica Expo

The CEO of Total Communicator Solutions agrees. I spoke with him recently about Project Boundary, and about his vision for beacons and contextual experiences.

Erik Bjontegard was getting ready to present at the SmartAmerica Expo whose goal is to “boost American competitiveness and provide concrete examples of socio-economic benefits such as job creation, creating new business opportunities, improving the economy, improving/saving lives, by combining Cyber Physical System technology created from significant investments made by both government and private sector.”

Behind the scenes, Erik and his team had jumped through considerable hoops to install Project Boundary at the HHS offices.

“It’s been a rewarding project,” Erik told me. “what we’re doing is we think the first time that beacons have been used to encourage and reward healthier behavior. HHS is excited about it because with beacons we can encourage people to drink more water, to be healthy at the vending machine, to take the stairs instead of elevators. Our approach is to use beacons at key waypoints throughout the HHS building and assign points and rewards if participants make healthy choices.”

The use of Gimbal beacons were a natural fit both because the Spark Compass platform has been built around Gimbal, and because their security layer provided assurances to the security-conscious officials at a government building right next to the capital.

“We had to overcome some big challenges around security and confidentiality,” said Erik. “Plus, we had two months to launch a fully functional platform, set up the beacons, create a system that would give participants points, deploy a gamification layer – it’s been hard work but exciting.”

The demo showed off the concept of Project Boundary, although Erik’s team has been deploying Gimbal beacons in trade show facilities, hospitals and other venues.

Results That Matter

“What we demonstrated was built around two key components for the healthcare system: helping clients lead healthier lives, while keeping an eye on the ramifications for cost and efficiency. Our larger goal is to take Project Boundary out of office settings and into hospitals. If we can create a system that results in tiny shifts in behavior it can move the needle in a significant way.”

“A patient can receive a message the night before seeing their physician reminding them that their procedure requires that they don’t eat, or that they sleep well. Small shifts that can have an impact on the bottom line.”

But beacons are only part of the system, as they are in retail and other environments. Beacons are the “nudge points” based on proximity, but it’s how you integrate them with other data that can make a big impact.

“We use a hybrid model,” says Erik. “Our system also integrates with systems like Qualcomm Life, management systems, and patient databases. The key is to design experiences that change behavior, lead to efficiency, create healthier patients and improve the healthcare system.”

Privacy, Security and Your Very Personal Device

But as in retail, privacy and security are big concerns.

“Especially in health,” says Bjontegard, “We’re dealing with people on a very personal level and we can’t afford to abuse this. We now have a responsibility to value the relationship we’ve established through a very personal device. We’re establishing a personal relationship through a user’s phone, which has become an extension of their being. Wearables will make this more challenging. It’s up to all of us working with beacons and contextual technology to respect this relationship.” (emphasis added).

Indeed. And a clarion call to all of us working with beacons.

Because devices that encourage you to take the stairs are just the beginning.

In this new era, Erik says that “Content may still be king…context is queen…but contextual intelligence will allow the whole universe to work. Beacons are a small tool set that allows us to do that more precisely, to bring contextual intelligence right to your phone or wrist. But there’s a lot more coming.”

In this new era, we’ll look to today’s push messages as the first in a wave of contextual and ambient computing that gets smarter as we go through the day.

The challenges to security (handled in Project Boundary by the advanced security layers offered by the Gimbal beacon and services), privacy and user engagement that we’re exploring today will seem simple compared to the next wave of mesh networks, hub-and-spoke beacon models, big data and wearables.

Project Boundary is a reminder that small gestures and thoughtful design can lead us in the direction of a smarter, more connected and perhaps even a healthier world.

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Where will the boundaries of health and contextual computing take us? How do we respect the fact that a phone is “an extension of a user’s being”? And have you seen other examples of beacons in health and wellness?

iBeacon UX and Design: 3 Ways Beacons Will Reconstruct Reality

iBeacon Redesigns Reality

Reality is messy. That’s the secret challenge of iBeacon and Bluetooth LE proximity devices.

Think about it: we live in an online world where design has gone “flat”, where iOS7 took away all the felt and leather and extrusions so that the interface gave “deference” to content and where Google marches on with an improved design aesthetic tied up neatly into cards.

The Secret Challenge of iBeacon? Reality is Messy

But reality is a different beast. It’s messy, often overpopulated, and dense with visual and auditory information.

For a mobile developer, the iBeacon framework (and its companion Bluetooth LE detection on Android) is actually relatively simple.

Sure, you need to think about message frequency and capping, prevent multiple “calls” when a beacon is detected. But the code you need to use consists of very few classes. Compared to making, say, a mobile game, iBeacon is a piece of cake.

The problem isn’t in the software, it’s in the broader interface that the user experience exists: namely, physical reality.

Reality Isn’t Zoned

One of the common use cases for iBeacon is retail. Estimote used the idea of pushing coupons and special offers for shoes as a way to demonstrate the use case for beacons in retail.

But reality and beacons collide when you get them into the wild. Because even though you might think your shoe department is zoned off from dresses (and maybe it is!)…when you dive down a level or two physical space quickly becomes cluttered.

In fact, I’d argue that this clutter can be both a curse and a boon in a retail environment: allowing moments of serendipity, intentionally getting lost, and matching up related items even though they might not belong in the same department – a scarf with a jacket, say, or a jar of pasta sauce next to the spaghetti.

But in an omnichannel world, this creates a challenge: because creating an experience for a customer that bridges both the physical and digital requires a new way of thinking about design.

The metaphors you use online benefit when they carry over to a store (and vice versa).

If your online store has a section called rainwear but your physical store hides the umbrellas in accessories then you’re not creating a true omnichannel experience – you’re simply selling the same goods in two places.

How iBeacon Will Reconstruct Reality

It isn’t just beacons that will drive a change in how we think about physical space. Pop-up stores, for example, are inspired in part by microsites and interstitials – they’re the equivalent of media-rich banner ads for the physical world.

But beacons expand the UX tool kit. They force us to think about space design in the same way a museum might think about exhibits, or Disney might think about theme parks (both of whom are early adopters of proximity-based mobile experiences).

While we’ll still see physical stores that are crammed full of stuff with spillover and overlapping zones, I also think that beacons will inspire new ways of thinking about architecture and physical design.

Here are three:

Increased Hierarchy

More attention will be paid to hierarchy in design:

  • Larger zones will be marked by increased space given to ‘transition’ spots. Think of them like buffer zones – intentional breaks in the flow of a physical space to let customers situate themselves, check their apps, and do visual wayfinding. These spaces will be the equivalent of didRangeBeacons.
  • Increased attention will be paid to sub-dividing zones and giving better visual cues. I’ve been walking around stores lately thinking like a web designer – and I’m struck by how poorly the hierarchy is expressed between larger departments and sub-departments. It’s the equivalent of using an H1 header tag for “shoes” and a <p> tag for children’s shoes.

Digital Cues in the Physical

We’ll start to see signage, shelf-talkers and other in-venue signage that specifically references a mobile/digital interaction. While many beacons will be invisible, there will also be a generation of signage and point-of-sale displays with a digital call-to-action.

QR codes and NFC “tap here” were earlier examples of this, but required too much action for most consumers. Instead, we’ll see things like “Pin This” or “Like This” signs where approaching the shelf the content is loaded up for you and a big Pinterest button invites interaction.

The conventions of the digital, in other words, will start being more visible in physical places.

The Quiet Commons

Perhaps the most radical way that physical worlds will change, however, is in how we start to create space for exclusion from the digital. Many retailers will be focus on how to create more content, more offers and more ways to engage customers and up-sell them or retain them.

But the truly forward-thinking designers of physical space will also recognize the limits we have for information. We’ll see ‘spaces within spaces’ that signal escape from overload, escape from the digital, and ways to connect in more personal ways.

This doesn’t mean we need meditation rooms at your local Macy’s. In a retail environment, it can be as simple as blank wall space or a visual display without any products at all.

Even Disney, which isn’t exactly short on sensory experiences, builds “escape” pods into its theme parks – places where you feel like you’ve escaped the crowd and the noise.

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What do you think? How will the design of physical places change because of beacons and other connected experiences? Will retail lead the wave, or is the true innovation going to happen elsewhere?

iBeacon Rule Britannia

If you want to get a sense of the future of iBeacons and the Internet of Things you can’t go wrong if you start in the UK.

With a vibrant start-up scene, a truly mobile-first culture, and large companies that are innovating like scrappy upstarts the country will continue to be one of the world’s hot beds for the ‘becosystem’.

(But let us know in the comments below why YOUR city is an iBeacon hot spot!)

We’ve just wrapped up a week in London and have reaffirmed that we made the right decision to open an office there.

We met with some amazing people, expanded our network of partners, and were just generally impressed with the vitality and energy in a country that’s long since shrugged off a reputation for bad food and stodgy bankers.

We had every intention of blogging throughout the trip, but it seemed like each meeting opened another door, and by the time the week was done we had a rare craving to be stuck on an airplane for 8 hours so we could recover.

Mobile First, Omnichannel Everything

The first lesson is that omnichannel isn’t a theory in the UK – it’s everywhere.

While it might seem strange to a Brit, the ability to order groceries on the go and have them delivered to your home, or to go online and choose your goods so that you can pick them up at the store later is uncommon elsewhere.

In Canada (which, sure, innovates in other ways) the idea of mobile ordering and in-store pick-up sounds like some mythical future. In the UK, it’s already here.

Tesco iBeacon The country is an early innovator in ‘omnichannel marketing’ (although frankly they don’t really need such a buzzy word for ‘customer centric’) and it’s a reminder that while beacons are about physical places, they also need to find a home in a larger experience that includes multiple devices, engagement channels and ways for customers to interact with brands.

While we were there, reports of pilot projects in Tesco stores got a lot of coverage. But after visiting the UK our own response was more along the lines of: “well, of COURSE that’s what you do with iBeacon.”

The company is piloting a project which uses iBeacons to assist customers with the check-out process:

The test is initially only being used to trigger messages to consumers who are picking up an item in-store. According to a report from Marketing, Tesco plans to build on its mobile initiatives in the next year with a vouchering effort. The iBeacon technology is part of a bigger mobile push for Tesco to create a personalized shopping app that uses location to pinpoint the exact location of items in stores for consumers.

So while the project validates that iBeacon and Bluetooth LE beacons should provide more value to consumers than just pushing coupons, it’s still a natural extension of a country that views mobile as a natural extension of the physical anyways.

It is, after all, the home of Burberry, a company which perfected the blending of digital and physical. Its success, in fact, inspired Apple to snap up their CEO (and which inspired our own thoughts on how to growth hack retail).

Beyond Retail

But it isn’t just retail which will get the iBeacon treatment. In respect of the confidentiality of some of the folks we met or are partnering with in London we need to be a bit circumspect about what we say – but there’s some incredibly thoughtful and provocative innovation that has nothing to do with retail, and which might just change the world for the better.

We saw examples of beacons being used to democratize content production, devices being made that push the limits of the single beacon, and use cases that will make both commercial sense and do some social good.

iBeacon Hackathon UK

Our good friends at BeMyApp will be duplicating the success of their San Francisco iBeacon Hackathon.

They’ll be holding an iBeacon Hackathon in London April 25th – 27th. We’re pleased to be a media partner for the event and can’t wait to see what the UK comes up with as innovative uses for Bluetooth LE beacons.

You don’t need to be a coder to join the event – just come with your ideas and energy.

Judging from our week in London we might not have managed to get a lot of blogging done, but we had enough inspiration to last a year…and can’t wait to get our operations up and running over the next few weeks and connect with even more folks doing amazing things out of the UK.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Check out our BEEKn Google page, join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

And don’t let us just put a plug in for London! We’d love to hear about your city and why it’s rocking the world of beacons. Let’s get some global boosterism going – and let us know why your corner of the world is an iBeacon hot spot. And if you’re in the UK, drop us a line – if there’s enough people, maybe we’ll throw a party to celebrate our UK offices.

Time Magazine Coverage of iBeacon


Time Magazine believes beacons might just give retailers the same kind of insights that online merchants get. In an article in the current issue of the magazine, Harry McCracken  writes that:

By melding your physical position with facts they’ve already collected about you from rewards programs, brick-and-mortar businesses can finally get the potentially profitable insight into your shopping habits that online merchants now take for granted.

The article includes a snappy graphic and outlines four ways that beacons can change shopping and leisure, including its use in ballparks and stadiums, coupons in department stores, content at art galleries and museums, and reminders at grocery stores.

But while beacons might become mainstream, my own quote in his article reminds us that: “People won’t know these beacons are there…they’ll just know that their app has suddenly become smarter.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Check out our BEEKn Google page, join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.