Browsing Google Chrome and the Physical Web

Google Chrome Physical Web URL

Chrome 57 has launched, and with it in-browser support for the Physical Web. Now, when a user goes to conduct a search or enter a web URL, any nearby Physical Web addresses will appear just below the address bar as seen in the above graphic.

It adds another piece to the proximity puzzle – allowing your browser to show nearby URLs when you go to enter a Web URL or go to conduct a search.

Use Cases for Chrome URLs

Being able to see nearby Physical Web URLs in your browser suggests some interesting use cases/value propositions:

Closing the Gap on Physical Web Objects – in the world of the Physical Web you walk up to a “thing” and use it. In general, their use case is for that “thing” to include a Physical Web icon. You need to know that the object has a URL attached to it. This is usually accomplished through physical-world icons/signage. You then need to know to “pull down” on a notification tray to see it.

By adding Physical Web URLs to your browser search/address bar, there’s another path to making sure users will more easily be able to “see” that URL.

Show-rooming – Retailers still struggle with ‘show-rooming’ – where users will be shopping, say, for a fridge and go online to compare prices when in the store. By attaching a physical web beacon to the fridge, the retailer has a last chance to catch the user’s attention with a link of their own.

In the Home – This is, perhaps, where beacons can truly start to merge over with the connected home. Device makers (say, the Nest thermostat) can embed a Physical Web broadcast. Now, your thermostat, connected TV or other device can offer up a manual, support hotline or other information as an available link in your browser – and possibly bypass the need for a custom app.

Bluetooth in the Browser

Things start to get really interesting when you take into account the fact that Chrome also supports Bluetooth connections.  By allowing Chrome to connect to nearby Bluetooth devices, you can create use cases where a Physical Web signal leads to a web URL. The web URL leads to a page with support for Bluetooth connectivity.

(We should note that Bluetooth proximity and Bluetooth connectivity are two entirely different things!)

Google does a deep dive on this capability and provides libraries for Angular, Node and Polymer.

We can envision use cases where you approach a fitness machine in a local gym, it has a Physical Web logo, a Physical Web URL shows up when you search in Chrome, and the web page it takes you to can connect to the machine and read out heart rate or other information.

Go Chrome, or Go Physical Web?

This addition to the “proximity pathway” is great. But it adds another layer to an already confusing set of instructions for consumers.

One interesting question: when you’re creating an in-location sign/symbol or marker to let consumers know there is a nearby URL, should you flag it as Physical Web, or Chrome?

I’ve been wondering whether the Chrome logo wouldn’t be a better way to go. It bridges Android and iOS, is a recognized symbol, and is WAY easier to explain.

Because when the current instructions look like THIS, wouldn’t THIS be easier to understand?

Share Your Thoughts

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

Have you engaged yet with a Physical Web URL via Chrome? What use cases do you think we’ll see? And do you think the Physical Web icon will be a driver of adoption, or will we see other ways to promote these new features?

Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.

Content Creator or “Business Builder”? Drop Me a Line

On a side note, we’ve been partnering with content creators, publishers and entrepreneurs of all stripes. We’ve been building out tools to bring proximity channels to new markets. If you’d be interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to drop me a note – doug (at) . Our mission is to help content creators,  publishers, entrepreneurs and companies to build new revenue streams on the Internet of Things.

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.

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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.

Beacon Ad Networks: The Best Way to Destroy a Developing Industry | Guest Post

While some beacon companies turn to Ad Networks as a savior, doing so would destroy the industry. That’s the premise of our guest author Alex Ball, CEO and Founder of Signal360. He takes a hard look at whether beacon companies should turn to ad revenue to drive growth.

Why Beacon Companies Are Turning to Ad Networks

A year and a half ago Apple released “iBeacon,” a marketing name for a software callback added to the iOS Operating System SDK. To marketing teams at Entertainment, Hospitality and Retail Companies, it was as if Apple had sent an edict as to the future of marketing. It seemed, and continues to seem based on news reports, as if beacons are now at the core of every marketing campaign. However, all those months later, the number of real world implementations are miniscule.

One of the first stated implementers of the technology was Major League Baseball at stadiums across the US. Two seasons later, the technology is deployed at a small subset of stadiums and is delivering only a single welcome message through an application that has downloads of only eighty thousand compared to the tens of millions who visit a ballpark each year.

With the Apple iBeacon announcement have come thousands of “beacon” companies. Every company premises itself on the amazing vision of content being delivered in aisle. However, many of these companies are currently closing shop or pivoting as hardware prices dropped, initial enthusiasm has waned, and companies come to term with the fact that large enterprises buy complete turnkey marketing solutions, not hardware.

So far the story follows a typical arc for a technology; initial outpouring with many competitors, natural pivots and closings as the market is winnowed down to the few companies providing an adequate solution. The problem is that as beacon providers have struggled to effectively signup and integrate with enterprises, many in the industry have turned to an Ad Network as the saving grace.

The Premise of Ad Networks

The premise and promise is that instead of convincing retailers of the value proposition, proximity companies instead try to integrate their SDKs into a variety of 3rd party applications and hope to deliver across networks of physical devices installed in malls, retailers etc.

The recent Lord and Taylor press release stated that the company had embraced Proximity Marketing in its stores. What was not stated explicitly was that the app being used is a 3rd party coupon app and the Lord and Taylor app does not include any proximity functionality.

Unnamed sources at Lord and Taylor informed us that the quoted cost for integration was in the ten of thousand of dollars but that was deemed too expensive. To a company with approximately one million in revenue per store last year, this shows a disappointing precedent of being unable to produce even a small amount of value from proximity marketing. This is not the utopian or even dystopian vision of beacons everywhere, this is a big tease.

..And The Peril of Ad Networks

What’s the danger of Proximity Marketing taking the easy road of integrating with and creating Ad Networks instead of direct with retailers?

  • The danger is that the public’s first interaction with Proximity Marketing will be for a game app to suddenly send twenty notifications as a shopper travels through their grocery store.
  • The danger is that the Retailer will lose the ability to personalize, to learn from its customers, to improve and strengthen its brand and sales.
  • The danger is that the entire Proximity Marketing industry will be permanently damaged. Instantly the power of proximity will be branded by consumers as a spam mechanism for coupons.

The problem with the ad network approach is one of ownership. Because Proximity Marketing is a complex process that requires a retailer, a physical beacon, a smartphone application, interesting creative, feedback mechanisms to control rate of delivery, notice and choice and more; this is not something that fits into the standard agency model of a quarterly ad buy.

When the retailer is not the owner of the experience, then the policing of the content and the relevance is left to the Ad Network which is interested in impressions not in long term value add to the consumer. Proximity technology has the promise of being a powerful weapon in the physical retailers fight against ecommerce; it lets the retailer own the physical and digital experience, giving customized experiences and value to the customer.

So what’s to be done?

There are retailers who are staying the course. At Signal360 we have the pleasure of working with many NRF100 retailers who chose us because of our turnkey and complete solution. Today we have won the RFP’s, integrated into the apps and are deploying at major retailers across the country without sacrificing consumer experience for a seemingly easier path.

What does the future of Proximity Marketing look like?

A few proximity marketing providers will offer complete and turnkey systems to assist retailers deliver in house proximity marketing.

These well crafted and contextual messages will meet with mostly intrigue and interest by consumers as we have seen with our implementations. As consumers become more familiar with the technology and the use cases, and on a case by case affiliate basis, brands will be allowed to deliver into the retailers apps and select 3rd party applications. This will open the door in a controlled way and most importantly keep the ownership with the retailer. Ever since the dawn of the Internet, retailers have seen many of their advantages chipped away. Not so with proximity, retailers will finally own their physical as well as digital space.

Count us in to that vision. That’s something we want to be a part of. Because in the end its what will be good for the consumer and thats what matters.

Guest Author

Alex Ball, CEO and Founder of Signal360. Signal360 a leader in proximity marketing solutions with over four years of experience creating a differentiated, turnkey, best in class proximity platform.

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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 brands be able to resist the call of ad networks? And what will it mean for consumer acceptance and the success (or failure) of beacon-focused companies?

Samsung Makes Its Move: Beacons for Android, No App Required

Samsung will launch the Samsung Placedge Platform at their developer’s conference tomorrow, and with it will cut out the need for a brand to have its own app to detect beacons. Instead, Samsung will provide a sort of uber-application that sits at the device layer, detecting a shared registry of beacons and pushing messages via a shared service.

They also invite developers to create their own apps using the Samsung tools. This makes it possible to both push messages through the Samsung app and reach them again through your own app. The appeal to brands might be irresistible – allowing them to reach consumers who BOTH have AND don’t have an app.

The move by Samsung helps to reinforce that beacons aren’t an Apple-only thing. And it highlights the competition for access to the engagements that happen in place.

Samsung has staked its own territory with Placedge – bypassing the individual retailer or brand app and providing a “uber service app”, giving retailers a full suite of tools to manage campaigns and beacons.

The Placedge website promotes simplicity:

Once the Proximity Service app is installed, dynamic and relevant information and coupons will be pushed to the user’s phone. By leveraging various features provided by the Samsung Proximity Platform, partners can create highly-targeted marketing campaigns to generate more foot traffic and sales.

The platform won’t look dissimilar to the dozens of beacon campaign systems on the market today, from Lighthouse to LocalSocial. But Samsung is taking things a step further by building its own proximity layer and user experience – potentially in conflict with patents held by Apple.

It’s Time for Android

While Bluetooth beacons have become synonymous with the Apple iBeacon brand, the devices are based on the open Bluetooth standard and Android phones with KitKat or higher have been able to detect beacons.

Beacon detection through standards like Radius Networks and its AltBeacon open specification allows app developers to create proximity-based experiences. Deploy a few beacons in your location and both Android and Apple apps can respond to the devices.

But with both platforms you still need an app. And while beacons make proximity experiences possible, they don’t on their own deliver content, coupons or interactions. You still need an app for that, and you usually need a cloud-based content and campaign management system to get it all to work.

There’s No App for That

Samsung has decided to supplement the app layer by building its own. Sitting on the level of the phone, it provides retailers and brands direct access to consumers and provides a suite of campaign, push message and coupon delivery tools.

In other words, the company has decided to try to own a good chunk of the middle layer between the beacon and the consumer…and will give companies like Urban Airship (which has made a big push into beacons, including through a partnership with Gimbal) a run for their money related to push messages.

Samsung is announcing that its doors are open for partnerships:

‘The Samsung Proximity Partnership Program provides an opportunity for partners to configure and deploy an effective location-based marketing campaign. Samsung would like to support you to make a successful story All you need to do is to register to our proximity service partnership program, and then we will provide the full end-to-end solution.  In order to get started, join the Proximity Service’s Web Console with Samsung account. We will verify your account and give you a company code, and you will be ready to go!”

Yet by bypassing the app layer, Samsung is providing brands and developers a way to reach consumers who don’t have your app installed.

They offer developers tools to build on top of this experience, although details remain to be released, with Samsung inviting developers to “Build an app using the Proximity Platform to drive more mobile traffic to your app.”

By building its own infrastructure, Samsung also seems to be making a play for the digital wallet,  setting the stage for a showdown with Apple Pay.

You’ll Still Need a Beacon

Samsung has seemingly announced support for “your own beacons” but highlights four companies on its website. No details have yet been released on the configuration requirements for the beacons – whether they have specific requirements for ad intervals or packets, security layers or other features.

Our personal preference has always been Radius Networks if you want something out of the box and ready-to-roll – their work on Android frameworks has always been light years ahead of the industry.

In fact, the company is immediately launching a Placedge-ready beacon and developer kit – so there’s no need to wait, just jump right in and get started:

The Beacon Developer Kit for Samsung Placedge is an early-access kit featuring a proximity beacon for use in development and testing with the Samsung’s mobile proximity platform. This developer kit contains a pre-configured Bluetooth Smart™ beacons implemented in a tiny USB package that can be powered by any available USB power source.

The Early-Access program provides developers access to hardware proximity beacons that are compatible with the Samsung Placedge platform. Users of the kit should recognize that the features, functions and capabilities of beacons that work with the Samsung Placedge platform are subject to change and likely to change during the Early-Access period.

Apple/Samsung Showdown?

Apple made its earliest bets on developers. Whether they continue to let beacons live ONLY at the app layer remains to be seen. With Apple Pay, it won’t take much for them to create a new device-level layer for beacon-detection and payments and to allow developers and apps to tap into that larger ecosystem.

They also have a strong patent portfolio around retail-driven experiences with beacons, and their decision on whether to exercise that portfolio will be an interesting sign of whether the Apple/Samsung patent wars of years past are truly behind us.

But Samsung has made its bet: forget the app, forget beacon campaign management systems – bypass all that and go direct to the consumer with Samsung. Reach consumers who don’t have your app – and (possibly) then migrate them into your own experience, using the Samsung tools and SDK.

How open the system will be to creating experiences AROUND Placedge, how the beacon notices on the Samsung app layer can trigger engagement with a brand’s own app, and how this will be received in the halls of Cupertino are still to be determined.

We’ll learn more at the Samsung Developer’s Conference and in the weeks ahead.

But for now it’s game on. Welcome to the world of beacons, Samsung. Now let’s see how app developers, beacon management companies….and the consumer respond.

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 of Samsung’s move? How will it play out in the “becosystem”? How will consumers respond to a sort of “uber app” for beacon coupons and messages? Drop a comment below.

Beacons Make Brands Smarter (And Consumers Win)

Beacons make brands powerful.

But the power comes at a price: because unlike passive detection technologies, beacons emit a signal.

And that signal is both a godsend for brands and the source of their greatest terror: that a consumer will delete their app, that they’ll cross the line from contextual to creepy.

Beacons can make both brands and consumers more powerful. And this tension is one of the main reasons they’ve become such a massive source of innovation.

Brave New World?

It’s a brave, amazing, scary and sometimes creepy new world.

It’s a world where your car is connected to the ‘cloud’, your wristband knows your heart rate, your home knows that you’re back from the office and your thermostat knows how warm you like to keep things and how bright you like your lights.

In this brave new world, Buzzfeed has gone to town and highlighted concerns about beacons being placed on billboards and phone booths:

Gimbal’s apparent strategy — getting hundreds of its beacons placed in high-trafficked public spaces — contrasts markedly with the indoor, retail-focused applications that have dominated beacon-based marketing so far, such as telling a customer in aisle 12 that polo shirts are on sale.

While municipalities have trumpeted the potential civic uses of a beacon network (to help city agencies send alerts and other messages to smartphones, for example), their implementation has far-ranging commercial implications. And while the outdoor ad firms have so far played down those implications publicly, they’ve already pitched brands on the consumer potential of beacons.

The deployment of massive outdoor networks seems to come at a price: consumer privacy. Buzzfeed reports that:

…a large beacon network seems to be essential to the services the company has marketed to its clients. Gimbal’s “Profile” service, for example, “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about a user’s demographics (“age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”), interests (“sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”), and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time (home, work, gym, beach, etc.).” According to Gimbal, the Profile service only operates for users who explicitly “opt in” to it.

The truth, however, is that if you’re concerned about brands and retailers having a ton of data about you – about where you shop, where you check-in, where you hang out with your friends – then you have some catching up to do.

Beacons barely make a dent in building up the kinds of profiles Gimbal offers. It’s not the beacon that’s the source of all that data – it’s the ability to connect beacon data with your Facebook profile, say, your Foursquare data, or your Tweets that should have you worried.

There are, in other words, way way easier ways to conduct surveillance on your interests, shopping habits and where and what you spend.

And none of those other methods make it so easy to “opt out” or are as consumer-focused as Gimbal is by requiring you to opt-in.

Gimbal might not be a beacon (so to speak) of consumer privacy and protection, but their impulse to collect data is mitigated by one very very simple thing: beacons aren’t silent.

Beacons broadcast.  It’s this broadcast (a radio broadcast which does nothing more than emit a bunch of ID numbers and other data) which has retailers and brands deeply aware that consumers can and will notice (just as Buzzfeed was able to notice beacons, because they could…you know, monitor for them).

Beacons, in other words, especially in comparison to passive detection technologies, are a consumer’s best friend.

Clean Well-Lit Spaces

Now, Buzzfeed is right to be concerned. But not about beacons so much as about the role of any connected devices in the public space.

When I walk down the street I’m in the public commons.

Should the commons be free of digital commercials and tracking? Should I expect that a public park, for example, be free of cameras and beacons and passive WiFi monitoring? What about a public square – should I expect that advertising be clearly marked? Should I expect that technical infrastructure be aligned to the public good, and how do we define the public good?

If Facebook uses GPS to track where I’ve been, does the fact that they did so while I was in a public square matter? Or is the venue irrelevant because I’ve formed an implicit (or explicit, if you count a TOS as a legible instrument) contract with their app?

It’s OK to have advertising on subways or buses, but what if the advertising is mostly invisible to us? What if devices detect our actions and then push messages to us when we get to the mall based on where we’ve travelled?

Do we have a right to know that data collected about us in the public square can be used in private, commercial businesses like malls and retailers?

The use of connected devices in public spaces may be one of the great debates of our time. (Or might not be debated at all…and a Buzzfeed article or two will be the only record of having tried).

How we know about and react to connected devices in the public commons reminds me of what Eben Moglen, director of the Software Freedom Law Center once called the need for “clean, well-lit spaces”:

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 (profile) 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.

Against this backdrop beacons play a critical role. Because they broadcast. And by broadcasting they announce to a consumer “I’m here, now do with me what you will”.

The Right to Say No Doesn’t Just Impact Consumers

Beacons don’t solve these larger issues of technology in the public square, but at least they’re not completely passive and invisible.

Buzzfeed can still run around detecting beacons, consumers can still “opt in”, and you can still turn your Bluetooth off. The same can’t be said for passive WiFi monitoring, facial recognition or other invisible (and often signal-free) technologies.

By leaving power in the consumer’s hands, Gimbal can have millions of beacons in the world, but brands will still be careful about what they do with them.

In today’s world, there are very very few brands who want to be creepy. Not necessarily because they’re well-intentioned, but because they fear that you’ll do something as simple as deleting their app.

Your right, as a consumer, to say no, to turn Bluetooth off…has a very clear and direct impact on how brands and retailers thing about how beacons are used.

It’s the same impulse which has Apple continually tweaking how iBeacon works – turning on the ability for apps to detect beacons when off, for example, while giving consumers more choice in how location tracking is used.

The Winner is Innovation

We’ve met with dozens of brands. We’ve met with retailers who are using passive WiFi detection (using the signal from your phone to track where you go in their store), hidden cameras which detect your age and gender, and who crunch massive amounts of data about what websites you visit, what apps you use, and what neighbourhoods you visit.

But when it comes to iBeacon and BLE devices we almost always end up in the same place, where brands say this: “That we’d better get this right. We’d better not be creepy. And we’d better figure out a way to make this useful to the customer”.

Fear of their apps being deleted leads to innovation. And beacons give them a massive creative canvas on which to work.

The world ahead might be creepy. Connected devices might end up meaning not much more than “more data in more places”. But so far, beacons trend towards something else: a more contextual, user-focused world.

As Molly Wood reported in the New York Times:

Data collection and aggressive advertising will almost certainly be part of the early days of the beacon rollout. But hopefully the phase will pass quickly, because beacons have a lot of potential to deliver rich digital context on top of the real world.

To realize that future, users will have to know which apps to trust and reject the apps and the companies that take advantage of our phones’ home screens. The ultimate future of beacon technology is really up to us.

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Thoughts? Are connected devices a threat to privacy? What’s their place in the public square? And what role do beacons play in an age of consumer “big data”?

iOS8: The iBeacon Revolution | Guest Post

Beacondo on iBeacon iOS8 | Photo via Beacondo

Indoor maps, increased privacy and instant discoverability: Why iOS 8 Will Again Revolutionise Retail Apps

by Ildiko Hudson, Beacondo

As the iBeacon ecosystem flourishes and the technology gathers momentum beyond early adopters, its limitations have become clearer: accuracy is sometimes poor, users have concerns that stores are spying on them, and even with the smartest beacon deployment imaginable it’s all for nought if users don’t even have your app installed.

With iOS 8, announced three weeks ago at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, Apple has addressed these problems head-on.

In particular, the development of indoor mapping could well raise the quality bar for retail apps that take the time to get it right. But before you get your hopes up, you should brace yourself: you’ve got some more work coming.

Why isn’t iBeacon enough for indoor positioning?

Apple has never shied away from iBeacon’s drawbacks. Yes, it’s poor at precise distancing, but it was never meant to be that accurate.

Apple’s own systems only offer four proximity levels: you’re right next to it, you’re a few metres away, you’re somewhere in range, or the beacon simply can’t be seen.

Sure, with enough beacons in a store and some clever mathematics you can try to triangulate a user’s position, but even then something as simple as a shelf in the way or the user’s body position makes it extremely hard to be sure.

With iOS 8, Apple is introducing a new indoor mapping system that can track a user’s location more accurately than before. This isn’t an easy feat to pull off, so Apple’s solution is two-fold: innovation on the device plus careful vetting of locations to ensure the deployment is sound.

Although Apple is keeping their traditional silence, it seems almost certain that the new indoor position system is based at least partly on WiFiSlam – a start-up acquired by Apple last year for a cool $20 million, able to position a user to an accuracy of about 3 meters in environments with significant WiFi coverage.

Clearly not all locations have blanket WiFi available, and this is where Apple’s device innovation takes over: as you enter a building your device will hand your last known GPS fix to its M7 processor, which tracks your motion. As you walk, distance from that start point can be gauged somewhat accurately, although it’s still not good enough for really precise positioning.

And that’s where iBeacons come in: the combination of a “last-known good” GPS fix, M7 movement tracking, WiFi triangulation and iBeacon positioning means that Apple’s new indoor positioning looks set to give a level of indoor accuracy as yet unimagined. Each of these technologies is imperfect by themselves, but the combination and synthesis of their data is what makes the end result good.

The somewhat mysterious half of all this is Apple’s vetting of locations.

The availability of indoor positioning is down as “coming soon,” and although three locations have been enabled so far (the California Academy of Sciences, Westfield San Francisco, and Mineta San Jose Airport) there’s no actual sample code for developers to work with so it’s hard to know what hoops venues will have to jump through to get indoor positioning enabled.

What we do know is that Apple has launched a new site, Apple Maps Connect, that allows venues to register themselves to be enabled for indoor positioning and as part of that process Apple wants to know whether the venue has WiFi and iBeacons installed, and whether detailed floor plans are available. We don’t know how onerous the process will be, but we do at least know that it’s unlikely to be a magic bullet.

Location privacy goes to 11

iOS 8 introduces a new way of working with user locations that is sure to prove popular with users, although it does mean we’ll need to work even harder to gain and keep their trust. The main difference is that location data can now be requested either only when the app is in use, or always – i.e., locations can be monitored when the app isn’t running.

Both of these have interesting quirks, but we’ll start with “always” mode because in the world of iBeacons we want beacons to be discovered when the app isn’t running. When apps request “always” permission, iOS 8 makes this clear to users with the message, “Allow ‘SomeApp’ to access your location even when you are not using the app?” This was the default (and only) behaviour in iOS 7, so the message wasn’t so specific.

But Apple hasn’t stopped there: because of the power this “always” mode grants apps users will now be asked again after a few days have passed: an alert appears reminding them that your app is monitoring their location and asks if they want to continue allowing it.

If you choose the new “when in use” option for monitoring location, the user will see a message in their device’s status bar telling them that your app is currently using their location – if you’ve used the GPS navigation in Apple Maps, you’ll be familiar with how this looks and works.

Increasing awareness of location-enabled apps can only be a good thing for users, but it will likely increase the chance that users opt out of location monitoring which in turn will hobble iBeacon-enabled apps.

So, be smart: don’t ask the user for their location until it’s necessary. For example you can wait until they tap “Find my nearest store” rather than requesting it as soon as the app launches.

App discoverability done right

Getting users into your app has never been easy, particularly when compared to the easy availability of websites. Smart Banners have certainly helped (and if you aren’t using them you certainly should be!) but it’s only solves the problem for users who actively go to your site.

With iOS 7, Apple introduced a “Near Me” section on the App Store that was awesome – at least in principle. But it turns out that few users decided to pause their shopping experience to check the App Store on the off chance that there was an interesting app available for their location.

As a result, iOS 8 takes the same concept and moves it to a much more prominent position – right onto the user’s lock screen. Just pause for a moment and think what that means for you: that app you spent so much time and money making only to see a few thousand people download it? Well, Apple is now going to promote it for you, straight to user’s devices.

The process is simple: if the user does not have your app installed and enters a location where apps are used, they’ll see the App Store icon right on their device’s lock screen, opposite where the camera icon is. If they unlock their phone using that icon, they’ll see a list of the popular apps nearby, and hopefully your app will be right there ready for them to install. If they already have your app installed, they’ll see your app’s icon instead of the App Store, and swiping to unlock that will take them straight to your app.

This new lock screen promotion offers an incredible opportunity for stores with apps to get noticed in a way that is just impossible with websites. That said, you do need to put some thought in to make sure you make the most of it. But you’re in luck: as iOS 8 isn’t available just yet, you have some time to prepare, so:

  1. Check whether your app appears in the “Near me” section of the App Store.
  2. See where your competition ranks: launch Apple Maps, tap any location on the map, then look for the “Popular Apps Nearby” information.
  3. Prepare a marketing blitz in your store: if you want nearby users to see your app promoted, you’ll need to make sure your existing customers are installing your app now.

The clock is ticking

Location context is fast becoming one of Apple’s cornerstones for app recommendation and promotion, so it’s no surprise that iBeacon has seen a quick uptake. But right now it’s a moving target: Apple are continuing to innovate and are unlikely to stop, which means we all need to work to keep up.

Yes, this does mean pain in the short term, particularly if you’re still getting to grips with the basics of beacons, but the end result will be a barrage of users upgrading to iOS 8 ready to take advantage of all your work.

If it follows the same pattern as previous releases, we can expect iOS 8 to ship sometime in September. Our advice: get ready now.

About the Author

Ildiko Hudson is the founder of Beacondo, a free platform that lets anyone build iBeacon-enabled apps for stores, hotels, museums and more. You can follow us on Twitter @beacondo.

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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?