WWDC 2016: iBeacon and Apple’s Last Chance

Google is cleaning Apple’s clock in proximity. Their suite of software development tools leaves Apple in the dust – from tight integration of their Nearby API and their Eddystone beacon protocols, to the monumentally important physical web, Google is making sense of proximity.

It didn’t need to be that way. Apple was first out of the gate with the iBeacon protocol. They had ample opportunity to take it further.

But a few World Wide Developer Conferences later, and iBeacon is the orphan child of Cupertino – filled with vague promises never fulfilled.

The only hint of iBeacon heading in a new direction was the announcement that you would soon be able to deliver “Offers” . But the project was abandoned when Apple killed iAd. (And the link to the Apple announcement has long been dead).

The Mistakes Apple Makes

The launch of iBeacon promised to revolutionize how our phones would react to the world around them. Apple launched it with little fanfare and yet it prompted a wave of hype – the promise that retailers could reach consumers with coupons, that museums could display digital data “next to” a painting or sculpture, or that we could track down friends at a club because their phones would be broadcasting as beacons.

The initial problems were understandable. A new way to “listen” to nearby devices was bound to have a few bumps. And you’d expect over time that Apple would continue to enhance and improve the technology.

But after several years, the changes have been minimal. And in some ways they’ve perhaps even degraded.

The technology itself, however, wasn’t the only problem:

  • iBeacon was a trademark for beacons, but Apple offered little value in the iBeacon brand. You could adopt the iBeacon mark – or not. There was little incentive for beacon manufacturers to proudly wave the iBeacon flag, because it offered little assurance to end purchasers. Sure, it said that “this beacon can be heard by iPhones” but this caused more of a limitation than an opportunity – because the obvious next question was “What about Android?”
  • Apple lawyers got in the way. The company aggressively protected its ‘iBeacon specification’. But the move was kind of like trying to protect a proprietary version of WiFi – it’s a technology everyone needs to use, and by ‘blocking’ access it created market confusion and all kinds of end-runs around the iBeacon standard.
  • iBeacon detection became (even more) unpredictable. With every new OS release, you’d have to test all over again. The dependability of beacon detection kept changing. With one release, you would detect beacons quickly, and with the next O/S it seemed as if Apple was trying to conserve battery and had toggled back beacon monitoring. Without the ability to dependably say how long it would take to detect a beacon, and without being able to see ‘under the hood’ developers were faced with constantly checking their assumptions about beacon detection every time a new version of iOS was launched.
  • There was little integration with other parts of the Apple ecosystem. Have you ever tried to register your “place” with Apple? I can barely find the page. Google, on the other hand, offers much deeper integration with other parts of their ecosystem – in part because of how far ahead they are on things like maps, places, nearby and other protocols.

But perhaps more than the above, Apple neglected the one thing that it does best: focusing on the end user.

Instead, it has allowed app developers to make what they will of iBeacon and BLE, while offering little guidance on how to create great consumer experiences. As a result, we’ve seen struggles in develop “hits” – apps where consumers truly get a ‘wow’ factor.

This isn’t solely Apple’s fault, of course. Instead, the company has focused on other broader experiences – and will perhaps one day bring iBeacon back into the fold.

Physical Web is a Game Changer

Google, on the other hand, looked at the experience of proximity and has created beacon-detection tools that make sense – the Eddystone protocols are well considered, have rich documentation, great examples, and tight integration with other services.

But the true game changer is the Physical Web. And while it’s early days, the Physical Web creates opportunities for user experiences that truly make a difference – by hooking proximity into the web itself.

With the shift to browsers that can detect and control all kinds of BLE devices, the Physical Web is one part of a larger shift to a Web which reacts to the physical world – and in this open world Google will always be master.

The tension between open and closed systems will continue to tug and pull, but for right now open is winning and Apple is left behind.

WWDC – What’s Next?

All of which leaves Apple with one last chance – to elevate iBeacon from orphan child to star of the show.

If Apple makes a move, it won’t be to enhance the ability to deliver coupons. It will be part of a larger ‘connected space’ strategy which may incorporate Apple News, Music or other products.

But it’s a last kick at the can for Apple, in my opinion. Because depending what approach they take at their Developer Conference in a few weeks, developers may well migrate to a “Google-only” proximity strategy (including the use of Google tools on Apple devices).

It’s up to Apple, as they have many times before, to take what others have done and make it their own. But in this case, the mistakes they need to learn first are their own.

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Do you think Apple can change the game? Or will Google now dominate proximity? What could Apple do next with iBeacon – or is it too late? Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.

The Future of Beacon Technology | Guest Post

Guest Post by Jakub Krzych, CEO and Co-Founder of Estimote

Jakub Krzych is CEO and Co-Founder of Estimote, Inc.

In this (epic) guest post, he provides his thoughts and insights into the future of Web and mobile apps, the introduction of Google Eddystone and beacon support, and his vision for what it takes to bring digital context to the real world.

Mobile & web apps and the future of beacon technologies

It’s been almost two years since Apple launched iBeacon, its own beacon format, and kicked off the contextual computing revolution. For the first time in computer history, a massively distributed and popular consumer device such as an iPhone was able to sense micro-location information broadcast by tiny, battery-powered radio devices.

The most important innovation was removing all of the friction in user interactions. Before iBeacon, it was possible to use QR codes and pass contextual information to the phone, but it was inconvenient: pulling out the phone, opening a QR code scanning app, focusing the camera on the code, etc. With beacon technologies, users just need to enter a beaconified location and a pre-programmed action will automatically appear on the screen—frictionless.

Apple made this technology elegant, privacy-oriented and straightforward. They anticipated billions of devices advertising their presence, thus they designed the iBeacon format to consist of 20 bytes containing a static identifier (UUID + Major + Minor)—enough to number all the objects on earth.

When a phone discovers the beacon and picks up the identifier, it triggers an app and the action assigned with that beacon. That is the most beautiful part of this elegant design: an app searching for a specific beacon is required. That means this technology is opt-in only. Apple knew that powerful and frictionless experiences might also put users at risk of being spammed or tracked without their knowledge. That’s why users have to explicitly opt in by simply downloading their favorite store or brand app. By doing that, they allow app creators to push notifications to their phone or to use location services.

When a user feels that the app shouldn’t use her location or that there’s not much value behind the app, she removes it. That is actually why many app developers concentrate on delivering amazing value to users.

If a user boards a train, arrives at the destination, and gets a notification with the ticket automatically charged to her credit card, that would be a magical experience. Or if she arrives at the airport and the app says exactly where to go and she is checked in by walking to the gate, that would be an amazing frictionless passenger experience.

However, it’s one thing to broadcast a static identifier and trigger hard-coded actions and another to engage with users through dynamic app content.

When a user walks into a furniture showroom and approaches the sofa she likes the most, she can see the picture, description, or price on her smartphone. But this data might change over time. In order to maintain it, developers might either hard-code all the new data into the app and push the new version to the App Store, or the app might simply fetch the data from the server by passing beacon identifiers to CMS solutions, where marketers could keep the content up-to-date.

Eddystone by Google and the mobile web

But what if we want to interact with many brands and many airports or retail stores? Do we need to download all these apps? Not really.

Google recently released a different beacon format called “Eddystone.” Unlike iBeacon, it doesn’t broadcast only an identifier, but also a pre-programmed website URL. So instead of having many different apps fetching contextual data, we might have just one, and it can simply be the web browser.

A similar shift happened in the early ‘90s. There were many standalone apps exchanging data with servers using different data formats. There was, for example, the FTP protocol and the FTP client app, IRC and its client, Usenet, Gopher, Mail, etc. Over time, most of these services moved to the web and were consumed by the internet browser, which could run on any computer, any processor architecture, and any screen.

It was faster and cheaper for developers to design, build, distribute, and update web apps. Broadband and modern browsers made it impossible for users to distinguish the so-called Web 2.0 apps such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Docs from their standalone competitors like Outlook or Excel.

That trend is not visible in the mobile world yet. Most of the popular services such as Snapchat, Facebook, or games still run as standalone native apps. It’s because of performance: native apps can run much faster, they optimize battery consumption, and they have access to low-level peripherals such as built-in sensors, cameras, memory, etc.

Over time, the defragmentation of mobile devices, platforms, and screen sizes might again result in a shift towards web apps, especially if browsers become faster and gain more access to low-level peripherals. Google, for example, recently released a Chrome browser for iOS that can natively scan for URLs broadcast by beacons. This might become the promise of a single app talking to many beacons.

Web app or native mobile

One app installed on the phone and responding to all beacons might be an elegant solution to the app distribution problem.

Nevertheless, the most progressive brands and retailers, with their innovative mobile teams, will keep investing in their own loyalty or in-store-experience apps. They know that the only way to have  full control over the data, branding, and end-to-end user experience is via standalone apps installed on consumer devices.

They also know that the only way to convince users to download these native apps is to provide them with amazing value. Beacons help with that, by removing the friction and making apps smarter.

UI and UX designers can leverage beacons to understand the microlocation or context of their users. Also, by using additional data from sensors, such as motion or temperature, user interfaces can be simplified or sometimes completely reduced.

Beaconified apps help their users focus on the main goals behind the apps and can impact important metrics such as engagement, usage, or retention.

Scaling beacon deployments

The typical app beaconification process starts with experimentation and prototyping. A proof-of-concept app is created with just a few beacon dev kits. Pitched internally, it can often attract attention from product people and decision-makers. Once an app is budgeted and the mobile team allocated, the proper app development process starts. After few weeks or months of app development, beacons are deployed to the production environment.

For airports, shopping malls, or huge retailers beaconifying enormous spaces and thousands of locations, deployment might be a logistics nightmare. They will most likely optimize for the simplicity of the installation and maintenance as well as the cost of that operation. It’s easy to calculate that a workday of deployment crew to complete the installation, configuration, and testing, multiplied by thousands of stores, can result in multimillion-dollar bill.

That is the main reason it’s unlikely that large beacon deployments will install beacons that require power cords, manual configuration, and floor-plan assignments. Even tiny details such as the lack of a built-in adhesive layer can impact the efficiency of the deployment.

On batteries and hardware upgrades

For the same reasons, it is unlikely that retailers will replace batteries in their beacons. The cost of that operation would be higher than installing new ones.

Once installed, beacons should last long enough that they can be replaced with the new generation: technology cycles in that industry move fast. Last year, Bluetooth SIG released two updates of their BLE standard and one of them requires completely new hardware for both the beacon and the mobile phone. So three-year-old beacons will be obsolete anyway.

However, software or hardware upgrades shouldn’t affect applications running on top of this infrastructure. The most progressive beacon companies will not only optimize the cost of deployment but also the simplicity of the migration.

For all of these reasons, it’s clear that retailers won’t install multiple beacons broadcasting exclusive data formats for different mobile platforms or apps. We shouldn’t expect that there will be beacons only for Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. It just won’t happen.

There’s nothing preventing beacons from broadcasting as many packets as we want. They’re just tiny computers, after all.. These packets can also consist of whatever data we want. That’s why any customer who purchased Estimote Beacons in the past can simply update them over the air and turn on an Eddystone packet or switch to iBeacon at any time. No new hardware is required. At Estimote, we are committed to supporting whatever the popular future beacon format is.

We expect rapid development of beacon technologies, new formats, sensor integrations, and security updates. That is why we advise our customers to choose a beacon partner wisely and to make sure purchased beacons can be frequently and effortlessly updated with new firmware.

Remote fleet management

An elegant and easy fleet management technique including firmware updates isn’t a huge challenge. Each and every beacon is a tiny computer and can connect to phones or other beacons. It can also exchange configuration data, including firmware.

That is why at Estimote we do not have additional devices or hubs to configure or upgrade our beacons. All the beacons can be upgraded over the air, and we use technology already built-in to the phones. When users visit different locations and their apps interact with beacons, they can simply connect and update beacon configuration or firmware in the background: it’s just a few kilobytes, so there is no impact on usage. And it’s 100% secure and respects the user’s privacy—no personal data are collected or transferred.

Because of the operation cost argument mentioned before, there’s no point in installing additional hardware to remotely manage beacons. Whenever beacons are installed, users with compatible apps should be in the proximity. After all, if there are no users around, why are beacons there?

On security and risks

Part of the fleet management routine should also be security updates. Many retailers or airports investing in beacon infrastructures are very sensitive to any potential vulnerabilities of beacon networks.

We can easily imagine airport passengers receiving notifications about cheaper flights to the same destination from a competitor airline exactly when they check in at the gate. Or, consumers visiting retail stores might receive coupons from E-commerce apps detecting their location in specific departments, causing a showrooming effect.

All of this could happen if competing apps sense the presence of beacons and remember their static identifiers. Since beacons are tiny computers, they can dynamically compute these identifiers so that only authenticated apps could decode them. This is exactly how we implemented Secure UUID mode. Our customers who want to protect their networks can simply turn on Secure UUID, and competing apps won’t be able to easily resolve the location.

Of course, every computer technology is hackable. But even if that happened, the risk is still very low, because there’s an additional layer of security: the Apple App Store approval process. Apple would never agree to publish in the App Store software malware that would basically have access to information it shouldn’t. These days, App Stores are the main distribution channels for apps, so respected app creators won’t risk dealing with Apple on that front.

Infrastructure sharing and innovation acceleration

Once the network of beacons is built and secured, there might also be opportunities to share it with other app creators. That is why we built a feature we call “beacon infrastructure sharing” on top of our cloud and beacons. Our customers can allow any app to take an advantage of the infrastructure and the context established in the venue.

We see retailers enabling different brands to use beacon infrastructure so their apps might trigger notifications when customers visit a partner retail environment. The same with airports, which might share different terminals or gates with different airline or duty-free apps.

We should expect that in the future, locations that are attractive and offer value to visiting consumers will sell access to their beacon infrastructures, via exactly the same model we’ve seen on the web with popular websites and ads. If someone creates a website with high traffic, they can make part of that website available for banners, cookies, or widgets as long as those components don’t confuse users. Otherwise, that website would lose them quickly.

With the security component and infrastructure sharing, any beacon network owner can invite third-party apps and offer campaigns for a specific period of time. For exactly the same reason that the visual language of layouts and banners have been used on the web by agencies and web owners, there must be similar visual language to manage campaigns and interactions in physical venues. That language has been already created: it’s called “floor plans and maps” and has been used by retailers, airports, museums, and their suppliers for years.

Indoor location with beacons

Being able to quickly deploy hundreds of beacons and see them immediately on a floor plan has been always a long-term goal for Estimote. Every day we get closer to that vision because of our heavy investment in beacon-based indoor location.

We’ve built an amazing data science team that has created robust indoor location algorithms and SDKs that anyone can build into their apps to achieve an accuracy of locating people and their phones inside a building to within just a few meters.

In order to make this extremely simple, we invented an auto-mapping tool. Even if the deployment crew doesn’t have a floor plan, they can map the space automatically using our Indoor Location App from the App Store. They just need to walk around the room once. The mapped space and beacon locations are automatically saved in the cloud, where they can be edited, managed, or shared with third-party apps.

There is also an analytics component venue owners can use to better understand the behavior of their users in their locations. The RESTful API makes it extremely simple for integrations or deeper insights.

The privacy issue here is solved by the same opt-in mechanism explained before. If users are offered strong value such as wayfinding, asset tracking, etc., they will download an app with a built-in Indoor Location SDK and explicitly agree to be located.

Knowing the exact location of people and being able to resolve their context is one thing, but having more insight into their interaction with the objects around them is another. Both of these components can help to design amazing context-aware mobile apps and experiences. That is why at Estimote we have also invested heavily in sensors built into beacons and invented “nearables.”

Using tiny beacons in the form factor of stickers, users can turn ordinary things into smart, connected objects. These objects can broadcast into the air not only their presence, but additional metadata such as temperature, motion, orientation, and state duration. This is all possible because of our very own connectionless Nearable Packet, which we introduced last year long before Google started to work on Eddystone.

Apps for the physical world

If you combine all of this—beacon infrastructure sharing, easy-to-use, and precise indoor location, plus nearables—you will very quickly understand where this is going. Finally, all these components make it possible to build real apps on top of physical locations that are full of objects. It’s a tremendous shift from apps designed for phones to apps designed for airports, retails stores, or museums.

For example, Estimote apps designed for one museum can be “run” on top of any museum that is “compatible.” A scavenger app built for one retail store can be scaled to thousands of stores. That is the long-term vision behind beacon technologies: to make it extremely simple to develop, configure, deploy, and distribute apps for physical locations.

At Estimote, we have been executing that vision since the day we launched this project. We interact with many pioneers in the community, and we are very proud of their help in making this technology better every day.

We are extremely excited that all the major players, including Apple and Google, are fully on board with beacons, and we look forward to seeing what comes next and how contextual technologies will evolve. The most exciting part is the fact this is still at an early stage, with many innovations and pioneer inventions ahead.

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Come on – let’s give a shout-out to Jakub. Epic post – and lots to think about. What do you think he gets right (or wrong) about the future of mobile and web apps in the era of Eddystone and iBeacon?

iBeacon and Brands: 5 Approaches to Engaging Customers

Bluetooth LE Will Power ROI-Driven Ways to Create Brand Engagement

iBeacon technology will give brands a new toolkit for 2014: a natural extension of existing strategies and tactics, a way to get closer to the point of sale, and a new way to engage consumers.

Brands will deploy proximity technology in retail but also as part of cause and event marketing, point-of-sale programs, advertising campaigns and affiliate channels.

Brands Coming Soon to a Beacon Near You

Marketers will be challenged to understand the concept of proximity versus location.

But they’ll also quickly discover that Bluetooth LE and related beacons are part of a larger paradigm change in which connected devices and sensors shift the way that value is distributed.

Soon, all products will in some way be connected to ‘the cloud’ and even the most mundane object will be part of a larger trend in which there is no divide between online and off.

Where retail is just the beginning for beacons, beacons are just the beginning for brands that are connected to the Internet of Things.

Disclosure: as noted in my profile, most of our work is aligned to brands and we identify and work with device manufacturers, platforms and developers to bring life to brand-driven campaigns. So while I’m happy to hype the value that brands will get from iBeacon tech you should know that it’s in our interest to do so.

The Advantages of Bluetooth LE

As we posted yesterday, the biggest storyline around Bluetooth LE (or iBeacon technology) is in retail. But as GigaOm and others have pointed out retail is just the beginning.

For those of you just catching up, beacons are devices that transmit a signal. Other devices (phones and tablets) listen for this signal and ‘wake up’ when one is detected and then use the data in the signal to calculate proximity.

Your iPhone, for example, will detect a beacon and then calculate that it’s close or far from the source. If you’re in a store, your phone will detect you’re in the shoe department and you’re close to the running shoes. Based on this calculation, your app can then display a coupon or other piece of content (the beacon itself in most cases doesn’t deliver the content).

Beacons do a few things that GPS or other location-based technologies don’t:

  • They’re designed to be low energy and so they can run for a long time (beacons can last up to 2 years on a single coin-sized battery)
  • Being low-energy they’re also kind to the user. Unlike extensive GPS polling, for example, they don’t drain a user’s phone battery
  • They don’t calculate location – they calculate proximity. Which means that instead of mapping a geographic location you can attach beacons to things that move or are moved
  • They work indoors (whereas GPS doesn’t work well inside)
  • Beacons are cheap, easy to install and last a long time
  • Unlike NFC, beacons work at distances that can range as far as 100 metres.

These advantages make beacons a natural fit for retail. But brands won’t just limit themselves to store shelves. Here are five ways that brands can take advantage of iBeacon technology.

Brand Strategy #1:

iBeacon Facilitates Advertising and Branded Content at the Point-of-Sale

ROI: Increase sales; improve ability to measure and adopt brand messaging; track and measure the full life-cycle of brand campaigns from broadcasting right to the shelf.

It might be the ultimate dream: to get as close as possible to connecting advertising to a purchase decision. iBeacon technology doesn’t just let a retailer deliver coupons as you walk the aisle of a local store, it lets you introduce messages at the point of decision-making and to tie those messages to data.

The analogy I use is the following: a consumer is standing in the rice aisle at a grocery store. Until now, the only A/B measurement that’s really possible is whether changing the price, offering points, or offering a coupon has an impact on purchase.

But what if you could run the equivalent of an ad that’s contextually relevant? Or offer the consumer three choices: a video, a recipe or a coupon.

You can now measure through A/B testing the impact that an ad or branded message has at the point of purchase decision. You can start to discover that consumers buy your rice not because of its price, but because it’s exotic, say, or easy to prepare.

While most iBeacon programs won’t be so precise in delivering content, there’s a real opportunity to both send, test and adjust advertising and branded content at the point of decision making, and to measure in a clear and coherent way its impact on purchases.

While rice might not be the top example, think about buying a car, an appliance, or a new set of golf clubs – decisions where consumers are far more likely to entertain richer media experiences if it provides value.

Brand Strategy #2:

iBeacons Enhance Event Marketing

ROI: Increase number of consumer touch-points at events; increase reach of sponsor messages; increase conversion rates (e-mail sign-ups, social media ‘likes’, sampling, etc); provide deeper ability to measure impact of sponsorship

Brands continue to grow their event presence – a place where consumers can directly engage with their products and where brands can benefit from the halo of being associated with a personality, interest group, or community.

Trade shows are the low-hanging fruit of event marketing and beacons will be used to guide customers around a convention hall, deliver product information in a booth, or facilitate providing digital offers, social sharing and customer sign-up.

But it’s in larger consumer-facing events (festivals, sports events, cultural activities, etc.) that beacons will really shine. Their ability to provide an extra ‘story layer’ to a mass participation activity will let brands extend their reach beyond a few kiosks or displays.

Brands will need to think beyond coupons and information and think about crafting stories. Imagine beacons at events that provide:

  • Treasure hunts or points for checking in at different displays
  • A series of social games triggered by beacons at a music festival
  • Digital ‘bulletin boards’ at a county fair where consumers can leave comments

Suddenly, beacons extend the reach of sponsor signs or kiosks, provide tools for social sharing, and engage consumers in new ways.

Brand Strategy #3

Affiliate Marketing: iBeacons Take You To The Consumer

ROI: Increase engagement with customers where they live, work and play; increase positive brand associations; increase brand recall and message penetration in contextually-relevant ways. 

Brands invest in event marketing because it brings them to places where their customers are hanging out and engaging. But clearly your customer isn’t attending festivals all week – and there are places your customer goes that are mostly inaccessible to branded messages. With iBeacons, brands can provide deep and lasting value to their customers in the places where they live, work and play.

Say you’re a hardware store: working with local groups to set-up outdoor beacons in a community garden that delivers schedules, tips, ‘digital bulletin boards’, photo archives and other materials. It’s a great boost to the community garden – and a chance to remind consumers of your local focus.

We think of this as affiliate marketing: the ability to use beacons to provide a service in some venue or community where your customers are, and as a result to reinforce perceptions and awareness of your brand.

Brand Strategy #4

Multipoint Marketing: Use iBeacons to Break the Retail Silos

 ROI: Increase impact of branded messages; increase customer loyalty across retail touch points; created integrated networks that act as brand platforms.

Not dissimilar to strategy 3, when you deploy iBeacons in a way that crosses over retail stores or categories you can create a continuum with your consumer. Traditionally, a single retailer becomes a single touchpoint. But with iBeacons, you can (without trying to sound creepy) track your customers from one store to the next and deliver a continuum of messages:

  • A wine company can set up a tasting network of wine stores and local restaurants and give their customers a ‘passport’ that suggests and keeps track of different wines they’ve tasted
  •  A shoe company can have check-in points at shoe stores, sports stores, and fitness centers and deliver different content that is part of a larger experience for the consumer

Brands will need to think about iBeacon as the equivalent of ad retargeting for the physical world: delivering a series of messages rather than repeating the same message for similar stores.

Brand Strategy #5

Use iBeacons to Enhance Cause Marketing

 ROI: Increase engagement, sponsorship recall and frequency and length of engagement for cause marketing campaigns.

Cause marketing continues to be a high-growth area for brands, in  particular for the halo effect it provides by associating with worthy local or national causes. Beacons will be used to provide value first and brand benefits second – but their use will increase the effectiveness and consumer engagement around causes, and will extend the length of engagement.

An app created around a community fundraiser, a ‘run for the cure’, or a grassroots initiative can be used to not just make an individual event more engaging (especially if it uses storytelling to reinforce the positive impact participants are having on the cause in question) but can be used to keep consumers engaged for weeks or months following the event.

Brand Strategy: Respect the Consumer

iBeacons will also pose their own problems as part of what AdAge calls ‘Techno Paranoia’ (a really misleading and provocative term, in my opinion):

“People have shown only limited wariness regarding the ways that mobile devices and apps can impinge on privacy, for instance, and thus far greater resistance to offline than online tracking,” she continued. “Plan for emotion-driven reactions that may seem inconsistent or altogether illogical.”

In general, we don’t think iBeacons will trigger as many privacy concerns as you might imagine, in part because they’ll become mostly invisible and provide a sort of ambient contextual noise.

But we’re not naive and support anonymizing data, respecting consumer privacy concerns, and obeying the most rigid interpretations of law.

But the dividing line for brands comes down to respect: respect your customer, focus on providing them value more than you focus on how much data you can harvest, and recognize that brands will be welcomed into physical contexts if they arrive with an attitude of empathy and service.

We can make the physical world a rich, interactive and meaningful place – one that gives us new choices, options and, yes, the ability to entirely opt out.

So what do you expect of brands in a world of iBeacons and connected devices? What’s the craziest idea you’d love or hate to see in 2014?

And remember…in the New Year…Be The Beacon(tm).

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5 UX Predictions for a World of iBeacons in 2014


User Experiences with Bluetooth LE Beacons Don’t End at Coupons

Bluetooth LE powered devices will inspire a new generation of smart apps that slip you coupons as you shop, point out sales on shoes at Macy’s, or book you appointments at the Genius Bar.

But the kinds of experiences we’ll have that are facilitated by Apple’s iBeacon technology (and its rapid adoption by Android devices in 2014) will go far beyond taking a store flyer or wallet full of coupons and turning it digital.

GigaOm gave us a nice summary this week of use cases beyond retail for a world of beacons – and how they’ll drive different ways for brands to engage with their customers:

Beacon technology will significantly enhance the customer journey – from discovery and research to payment and reviews – and we will see savvy marketers bringing beacons into their physical environments early next year. Brands across multiple industries need to start experimenting with proximity marketing and getting creative with engagement campaigns that hold the key to personal and profitable customer relationships.

They point to restaurants, hotels and real estate and places where beacons are a natural fit.

Beyond the Market is the Experience

Early Days for iBeacon UX Design

We’re at the starting stages of imagining iBeacons beyond retail. But we’re also at the very beginning stages of designing new experiences using iBeacon technology – of figuring out the interfaces, conventions and visual language.

I’m in love with the earliest iBeacon apps and think there’s a ton of value in this approach for consumers. I have no critique – they’re often perfect for the consumer use case.

On the other hand, they haven’t yet inspired us to imagine the ways that iBeacons will start to create something entirely new.

So in the spirit of sharing some of what we’ve learned, the challenges we’ve faced, and the opportunities ahead I thought I’d jot down a few predictions for user experiences in 2014.

Actually – maybe the best word isn’t predictions its “wishes”…and a desire to be inspired by the kinds of things you’ll create in the year ahead.

Prediction One

iBeacons as Pins, Drop-Offs and Bulletin Boards

In 2014 we’ll see the first beacon-based experiences that treat the physical world with the same design conventions as a Pinterest board or a Facebook wall. These experiences will be based on a simple observation: with beacons, we can create digital artefacts that are tied to a very specific place or object.

Right now, these artefacts are things like the coupons that a retailer delivers you when you’re in the shoe aisle. But if a retailer can tie a piece of digital content to a place, why wouldn’t consumers want to do the same thing?

  • In an art gallery, you can leave a comment attached to a specific painting that other gallery-goers can browse and see
  • In a community centre, you can post announcements near a beacon which would act as a digital bullet board for the neighborhood
  • In a retail setting, you could tag items for a friend who could then ‘find’ the shelf (or beacon) where you left the note the next time they’re in the store
  • A coffee shop could become the equivalent of a private social network where the content you share in the venue can only be viewed by others who visit the store.

In fact, this idea of ‘locking’ content to a specific beacon might do the equivalent of Snapchat private messages by attaching content to physical world locations. Put a beacon in a childcare centre and you can share notes with other parents knowing that the messages aren’t available in any location other than the physical venue.

Prediction Two

Experiences Where The User is the Beacon

PKPKT Game: Users Are the Beacons

Most people are still associating beacons primarily with physical devices that you attach to a wall. But the truth is that a user’s phone or tablet can be a beacon too. (Even some of the later-model Android devices have this capability, but it’s much more limited than Apple).

So in 2014, we’ll see an explosion of games and applications which use the capacity of your phone to act as a beacon.

Already, PKPKT is out of the gates with an example described by The Verge:

PKPKT (pronounced “pickpocket”) is a new iPhone game that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to simulate digital pickpocketing. Each player starts with $1,000 dollars in fake money, and can make more money by stealing from nearby PKPT users even if the app isn’t open, thanks to the technical wizardry of BLE and iOS 7. Once you’ve stolen from someone, you can boast about it by messaging them, which also works over Bluetooth — a refreshingly local twist on the cloud-based messaging apps we use today.

But this design approach won’t be limited to games. Phones can act as beacons in social settings and venues (concerts, galleries or malls) or can help tour guides or on-site staff act as visible ‘help desks’ even when there’s no desk visible.

Prediction Three

Beacons Will Tie to Physical World UX

One of the more intriguing challenges of iBeacon experiences is that app developers can’t just be thinking about digital – they need to think about how their experience will work in a physical space. This will open the door to interesting partnerships between display companies, point-of-purchase specialists and signage experts.

But beyond just placing beacons, there are limitations to both Bluetooth LE and how Apple has deployed it in iOS: namely, signal interference and delays with receiving local notifications.

We'll see ideas borrowed from the world of QR codes and NFC

In 2014, we’ll start to see ingenious solutions to this challenge – tying physical world cues to let the user know that there’s a digital ‘signal’ within a specific area of a store.

These might be interactive (screens, signs projected on the floor, or kiosks) or they might be printed (shelf talkers, end-of-display signs or posters). We’ll also see the beacons themselves as both invisible and highly visible – prominently displayed so a user knows they can expect some kind of content at that physical point in space.

Prediction Four

Most Beacons Will Be Invisible to the User

Yes, I know, this one’s in direct contradiction to prediction three. But it speaks to a point I made a few days ago about concerns over being ‘tracked’ by iBeacons: that, mostly, consumers won’t even know that they’re there.

In this case the design paradigm is to create experiences that don’t even notify the consumer that proximity technology is being used. And my guess is we’ll see a lot of this in 2014: retailers who use beacons to supplement existing apps but who only tie content and messages to beacons in a way that seems generalized to the user.

You might be standing in or near the cookie aisle and you might get a coupon for cookies, but for the most part users won’t even realize that it’s a beacon which has powered the experience. In perfect conditions, this kind of experience could give the consumer a sense of delight, a sense of having personalized attention, without the app needing to draw attention to proximity-based beacons as the reason that the content was so ‘smart’.

Prediction Five

Some Beacons Will Glow

One of my first dreams of an iBeacon experience was a device that responded to my presence. Approach the cash register at Starbucks, say, and a beacon would glow certain colors to let me know how much cash I had left in my digital Starbucks card: red for empty and green for full of cash.

In 2014, we’ll see a flood of products started-up on Kickstarter and by imaginative hardware developers where beacons give out visual clues through their combination with other technologies.

Airfy: Hybrid Device That Glows

Airfy is a great example, and one we’re really excited about: a WiFi station for your home that includes IFTTT support.

Whole some beacons will be invisible, others will glow, chirp or respond to user presence – turning physical objects into responsive design elements in a larger beacon experience.

The Future is Bright

It’s going to be a fun year ahead – and these five examples are probably meant to provoke thinking more than anything. I purposefully ignored the impact of wearable devices, tags and other types of sensors – a subject worthy of a full post on its own.

What I can safely predict is that 2014 will be the year of the beacon, that developers will do some amazing things, and that Bluetooth LE is the tip of the spear for a new generation of smart, contextual and device-driven experiences.

What kinds of design paradigms do you expect to see in the year ahead? What kinds of beacon-based experiences would blow you away? And remember: Be the Beacon(TM).

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