Be The Force: Beacons as Moral Agents

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

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

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

The Tech World Looks Inward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Tech Gets Wrong

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

They believe that fears of technology itself are misplaced.

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy and Emotion In a World of Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundaries and Features Build Our Moral Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moral Imperative of the Internet of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beacons Aren’t Neutral Observers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beacons Embody Belief

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

They’re just trying to ship great products.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture and Taste on the Internet of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stories We’ll Tell

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

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

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

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

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

You are it.

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

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

The guardians of that shift are you.

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

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

Be The Beacon.

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Thoughts? Comments? Drop them below.

Apple Launches an iBeacon [and they call it a watch]

The speculation was correct. Apple launched its own iBeacon.

But it didn’t come in the form you might have been expecting. Instead, you’ll strap it to your wrist and in so doing, the power of beacons to help make sense of the world around us will have a very personal, tactile and physical connection – right down to our pulse, the steps we take, and the friends we send our heart beats to.

Setting aside the lust-worthy bands or Swiss-level precision of the bevel (check out the “Watch Guy” to learn why), the Apple Watch is clearly more than a beacon. It’s a fusion of industrial design, software and sensors. But for those of us working in the world of beacons it’s a reminder that the power of proximity won’t rest in a one-to-one relationship between dumb and smart devices, but between many smart devices connecting to many other smart devices.

Dumb Beacons, Big Challenges

The challenge for the ‘becosystem’ will be breaking the lock on the mental model which was facilitated by the first wave of proximity beacons.

Companies like Estimote established the standard: they promised that simple, elegantly designed ‘motes’ could be popped onto the wall of your local store and deliver coupons or other messages.

And the uptake of beacons, whether in museums, Tulip gardens or your local coffee shop, was powered in large part by its seeming simplicity. The code you need on an Apple or Android device is relatively simple: a few lines in your software and your app can listen for beacons and, once detected, do “stuff”.

The initial challenge was to figure out what that stuff should be.

This turned out to be harder than most folks imagined: because suddenly, you had to shift from designing for mobile devices to designing for something far more messy and imperfect.

Namely, the physical world.

Push the wrong message at the wrong time and you’re suddenly sending a “Nice to See You” message in the toilets rather than the front door of your restaurant.

Reality is fuzzy, filled with interference, there’s little clarity between the shoe department and accessories even though the ‘zones’ might seem like they’re clearly marked.

Reality wasn’t designed to be digital and yet the promise of digitizing the grocery store was compelling enough to at least try.

What we discovered, however, was that even though beacons are relatively dumb, you need to be reasonably smart about how you deploy, manage and create experiences around them.

Beyond the Dumb Beacon

We’ve called beacons the gateway drug to the Internet of Everything.

On their own, they pose intense design challenges – challenges which, it turns out, can’t always be tackled with the elegance they deserve. And we admit that we went through months of trial and error and testing to even approach getting those challenges right. (Thankfully it’s pretty much all we do, so we had the luxury of focus).

Until now, the use of beacons has mostly focused on treating them solely as ‘dumb’ devices.

Powered by Bluetooth Low Energy (or Bluetooth Smart), beacons are, after all, not much more than radio transmitters that broadcast small packets of data which are picked up by nearby phones or other devices.

But the power of beacons is both a product of the paradigm they represent, and the exponential value they provide when coupled with other technologies.

Bluetooth Smart (BLE) uses a service-based architecture upon which profiles are built. Even excluding technologies such as passive WiFi monitoring, BLE itself has over a dozen ‘profiles’, from proximity (which powers beacons) to heart beat monitoring, time monitoring and “find me”/link loss services.

Add in chips to detect humidity, a gyroscope and an accelerometer and suddenly a simple beacon becomes a tiny powerhouse of data.

The Tempo

The Tempo is still one of our favorite devices. In spite all the beacons we’ve seen and tested, these little ‘stones’ still have the best app-side user interface, the best design, and give Apple a run for its money in terms of form and function.

And they’ve recently added iBeacon support. Richard Hancock, CEO of Blue Maestro,  tells me that “Through the app, users can turn on iBeacon mode and it will act as both an environment monitor and an iBeacon at the same time by intertwining broadcasts.”

“Tempo is particularly suited to use cases where iBeacon functionality and environmental monitoring is important, such as in museums, historic tourist attractions, transportation networks and stadiums.” He explains that “as iBeacon functionality is expanded by Apple (and Android), we will have the potential to do neat things with Tempo, such as automatically determine whether the environmental data has been harvested and, if not, trigger the download from the device, without having to involve a user.”

The device isn’t just beautiful to hold. The app isn’t just a rock solid interface which, you know, actually works. (I can’t tell you how many times we scream in frustration at the beacon companies whose apps time out when trying to pair so that you can recalibrate the settings).

Instead, Blue Maestro reminds us that “beacons” are already more than just proximity – they’re turning into incredibly powerful, multi-sensing machines.

The Smarter Cloud

Coupled with smarter devices is the smarter cloud.

Kontakt, for example, has launched its Cloud Beacon. Its power doesn’t rest, however, in the fact that it’s WiFi enabled. Its power rests in the simplicity with which it lets you manage fleets of beacons and harvest anonymized data.

Kontakt, whose sole focus is beacons, brings its not insubstantial expertise to the task of extending a simple beacon into a full network that combines WiFi with cloud-based control.

But from another angle, companies like, propose extending existing ‘smart infrastructure’ in order to extend it to beacons:

Why The Apple Watch Reminds Us of the REAL Future

But these developments pale in comparison to the real power of beacons.

We’ve long proposed that beacons represent the first in a paradigm-change for computing:

  • Proximity is different from location. Whether through beacons, Google’s Project Tango, or increasingly refined ambient signal detection, we’ve entered an era in which we can know what we’re close to, whether a stationary shelf or a moving vehicle.
  • Because our devices can now ‘see’ what they’re close to, the physical world itself is becoming a digital interface. This blurring of the digital with the physical means that there will soon be no offline.

And if our phones can ‘see’, and if our devices are also beacons (which is the case with Android-L capable phones and Apple devices) then it means we can also see….each other. And our devices can start to talk. And if our devices can start to talk, they can also start to do so without us even necessarily participating in the exhange.

Google Now gets us where we need to go. Our Apple Watch will gently tap us on the wrist if we’re driving in the right direction.

These ambient cues may still connect us to our devices and make us aware that they’re working on our behalf, but over time they’ll be more ambient and calm than pushy and forthright.

Lights in the Muji Change Room – One Day, They Won’t Need You To Touch

Objects will glow. Digital signage will subtly change. The change room in your local store will switch its lighting to show how your outfit looks in the actual light that you typically find yourself in.

And your watch.

Your watch is the new skeumorphic. Mostly familiar, mostly simple looking, it even tells the time and has a crown.

But as a beacon, it takes sensors, broadcasting and connection to a new level.

Your pulse is a text message. A gentle tap on your wrist is an interaction with another beacon.

Your watch won’t just be a connection to dumb devices planted in the world around you. For better or worse, your watch turns your physical body into a digital interface.

Mesh networks, continuity between devices, objects talking to each other, and our very pulse are creating a new canvas upon which digital interactions will be deployed.

We’ve said that with beacons, we’re inviting engagement with the physical world through the most personal object most of us own (our phone).

But Apple Watch and other wearables are extending this metaphor into even more personal spaces, into even more personal realms of data and connection, and are part of a network of nodes which is larger than we can conceivably imagine.

So, What’s Your Channel?

We spend a lot of time thinking about beacons. Trying to figure out how to deploy 10s and 100s of thousands of beacons keeps us awake at night worrying about signal interference and sun spots. (OK, well, we DO have our moments of random terror I suppose).

But what’s more challenging, and we think more interesting, is what it means for the user to be walking through an array of beacons that cover entire towns.

A visit to the grocery store can be a utility or it can be a cultural exploration. A wander down Main Street can be a chance to browse and window shop or it can be a chance to connect to community. A digital billboard can be an ad, or it can be the start of a story, an aspiration or an adventure.

The Internet gave us access to a universe of stories. Social media connected those tales to others. Beacons connected them to the physical world. And wearables bring them back to the domain with which we still have our most visceral and emotional connections: the physical world, our selves.

Apple and Samsung and Nike have invited themselves onto the most personal real estate there is. But it’s the connection of these devices to the world around us that creates the truly profound change – and gives both the ability for data to be harvested and experiences to be driven, pushed and personalized; and for us to understand these connections as a new art form, a new network of pulsing, ambient and personal power.

The motto of this site is Be The Beacon.

Now, more than ever, we are.

Toronto Dsrupted – Join Me!

I’ll be presenting this week at the Dsrupted Conference in Toronto. If you’re interested in beacons, digital signage and the next generation of ‘screens’ and devices you should join us.

Share Your Thoughts

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

Thoughts on wearables? Comments on Apple Watch? Drop them in the comments below.

And a side note: if you’ve commented before your contribution should immediately appear. But I’ve turned moderation back on because the darn Akismet spam filter just doesn’t seem up to the task. So, apologies in advance if it takes me a bit of time to approve your comment.

Adding iBeacon to Your Mobile Strategy | Guest Post

Ever since Apple deployed Beacons across 254 of its stores in the US, there has been a substantial buzz around these tiny devices, that businesses believe will act as the magical bridge between the offline and online worlds. According to a recent study by eDigitalResearch, 78% of consumers agreed that they would be happy to receive personalised messages from retailers.

As museums like The Neon Muzeum and Rubens Arts Museum, and hotels such as The James and Starwood Resorts get to grips with the technology behind beacons, consumer opinion indicates that these low-cost pieces of hardware have a huge potential to revolutionise experience across industries.

Although beacons are gaining momentum, many businesses are struggling to figure out how to integrate beacons with their existing mobile strategy. Here are seven steps every brand should take prior to launching their beacon strategy.

 1. Choose between having an app or not

To reap the benefits of iBeacon technology, you need to have a mobile app with which the beacon can communicate and interact with. Most brands are trying to enhance their customers’ experience by adding location-based elements such as indoor navigation, contextual notifications etc., to their existing app.

(a) Build your own mobile app

Retail brand, Tesco, recently deployed beacons to push messages through their app to notify customers in store, when their online order is ready for pickup. Adding on to that, with the recent iOS 7.1 update, retailers can now use beacons to wake up their branded mobile apps, even if they are shut down. Once your customer is in close proximity to specific beacon, the app will listen for beacons and sent a message through the lock screen. Thus, it helps you enhance your customers’ shopping experience through effective customer service.

The downside here is that, unless the brand has their own development team in place, app development can be quite taxing. Moreover, it also requires brands to handle beacon deployment single-handedly. This can be quite expensive, especially if they have multiple branches across the globe.

(b) Customize a generic app

You can also choose an existing generic app, such as a one that is optimised for your target market say museums or stadiums, and then use dedicated tools provided by them to customize the app to your needs. This way, it not only helps you easily provide a rich user experience, but also simplifies app development to a great extent.

For example, Fluwel’s Tulpenland (Tulip Land), a theme park that specializes in displaying Dutch tulips, recently customized mApp, an app developed by LabWerk specifically for museums, that wish to offer a good experience to their visitors. The app uses interactive content  such as images, video and audio to tell the story of tulips in a very personalized manner.

(c) Integrate with an existing sales app

If you don’t already have an app in place, then this is probably the best way ahead. The main advantage here is that you will be providing your service through an app that already exists on your customer’s smartphones. From PowaTag, a mobile commerce app with 240 leading retail brands on board to Vente-Privee, a leading mobile commerce app in the European market with 5000 partner stores across France, the market is abound with services that offer retailers an opportunity to send their customers relevant contextual messages in-store.

Adding on to that, there are other companies that offer services allowing brands to take advantage of an already existing iBeacon network. Condé Nast’s 19-year-old recipe warehouse, Epicurious, for instance, leveraged inMarket’s iBeacons to deliver push notifications on recipe suggestions to shoppers’ apps and thus drive in-store sales.

Integrating with an existing sales app, however, comes with its own set of disadvantages too. Not only will your brand’s message drown under those of others, but with too many brands pushing notifications through the same sales app, you are sure to annoy users. The only way to fight it, is to craft smarter messages that add value to your customers’ context.

(d) Integrate with Apple’s Passbook

While mobile apps are one of the most commonly used ways to leverage beacons, they are not the only ones. You can also tie up with Passbook, an existing ‘utility’ application on Apple devices, with your iBeacons. The primary advantage here is that, it does not require your customers to download a third-party app. They can just add a store-specific pass or loyalty card to their Passbook and once in-store you can detect a user’s location using iBeacons to trigger various messages and offers through their ‘Passbook’. This will save you the hassle of creating your own app.

Key Takeaway:

If you already have a branded app that is used and valued by your customers, then you can easily build upon it by adding location-based elements to the app. On the other hand, if you do not have an app, you can simply integrate with an existing sales app or Apple’s Passbook.

 2. Focus on proper communication

When it comes to location-based mobile marketing, it is highly crucial that you have a strong understanding of your customer’s context, including their purchase history, current location, and proximity to beacons to push relevant content and access to services. At the same time, you must ensure that you don’t overwhelm your users with notifications, as it could nudge them towards opting-out or un-installing your app.

The key here is to have a deep understanding of the value you can offer your customer and deliver it in the best way possible. You can start by focusing on making the message more contextual and valuable. For example, most customers appreciate helpful, relevant and timely concierge reminders when they are in-store. You can use this to your advantage by pushing alerts reminding them of a recent recipe or items on their shopping list. That way your marketing techniques will continue to add value to their shopping experience.

Key Takeaway:

While pushing relevant content helps boost sales, ensure that you don’t overwhelm customers with notifications, as it may cause them to delete the app altogether.

 3. Arrange for remote beacon management

Going ahead, once you deploy beacons in large numbers across the country, remote beacon management will become highly important. This requires beacons to have some sort of network access while empowering brands the ability to detect each beacon, and turn it on or off via backend. This is one of the main reasons why brands are considering the using beacon platforms while deploying beacons on a large scale.

Key Takeaway:

If you need to deploy beacons on a large scale at multiple branches across the country, then it is best that you leverage a beacon platform to simplify remote beacon management.

 4. Use multiple beacons for improved accuracy

Though the iBeacon technology works best at increasing indoor-location accuracy, it is very important to keep the level of accuracy in mind while deciding on a multi-beacon solution. The more accurate the positioning you require, the more the number of beacons required to be deployed.  If you are leveraging beacons to navigate your customers or visitors around the venue, you may not need as many touchpoints as required in the case of helping them locate a product within the store.

Key Takeaway:

While deciding on a multi-beacon solution, consider the level of accuracy in mind. The more accurate the positioning you require, the more the number of beacons required to be deployed.

 5. Equip your employees to offer better customer service

You can also use beacons to capitalize on the multichannel habits of today’s shoppers. For example, a retail store can equip their sales associates with tablets and smartphones that integrate with beacons to alert them when a customer reaches out to them for assistance from within the app. That way, these smart stores can use the location information of their customers to accordingly send the sales associate with the right amount to expertise to the right department. Further, you can use beacons to send important customer information based on the items pinned by a particular customer on pinterest or products on his/her wish list, to help your sales associates bring up additional product details.

Key Takeaway:

You can empower your sales associates by integrating their mobile devices with in-store beacons in order to alert them when a customer reaches out to them for assistance.

 6. Ensure that your app is secure

When it comes to beacons, privacy has long been a major concern among consumers. This, however, is a misconception about beacons. They’re only capable of identifying a particular mobile device’s proximity to beacons and any notification is triggered only by the app and not beacons. Beacons, by themselves, cannot track or collect data about customers.

Further with Apple having recently locked off the ability for users to manually input Beacon UUID numbers into an app, apps can no longer scan for beacons that aren’t their own. You/your developer has to program your app by actually specifying the UUID of the beacon that it is connected to.

Key Takeaway:

Although, privacy has long been a major concern among beacon consumers, beacons by themselves can not track or collect data about customers. Test your app for such security vulnerabilities.

7. Integrate with your marketing strategy

Once you launch a beacon-enabled app, the next crucial step is to integrate it into your overall marketing plan. You can modify your email and social media campaigns to drive app downloads and encourage people in close proximity of the beacons to give it a try.

Key Takeaway:

Ensure you drive more app downloads for your beacon-enabled proximity marketing strategy to be effective. Plan your promotional campaigns in advance to increase your ROI.

Thus implementing a context-heavy iBeacon strategy can result in superior customer engagement, better sales and higher brand awareness. The above mentioned pointers will help you integrate iBeacons into your marketing strategy with ease.

Guest Author Bio:

Ravi Pratap is the CTO of MobStac, a mobile platform company enabling location-aware apps for content and commerce. MobStac’s Beaconstac platform enables businesses to deliver superior customer experiences through the use of iBeacons for engagement, messaging, and analytics. The company was founded in 2009 and has offices in New York and Bangalore.

He can be followed on twitter at @ravipratap or you can connect with him on Linkedin.

iBeacon and Education: Bringing Beacons to the Classroom

iBeacon and related technology has a role in the classroom. But while it’s great to have a cool technology for the classroom (acetates on overhead projectors were probably once considered the height of interactive teaching) it’s just a gadget if there isn’t well-considered andragogy or pedagogy.

I’ve spent the better part of my career exploring education, how we learn, and how this changes our behavior awareness or capacity as people. So it’s a great delight to share this guest post by Jody Baty, a Senior Consultant and Project Manager at Roamable, who examines how beacons can be used in educational settings.

iBeacons for Learning – Part 1

The first thing worth understanding about training is that classroom-style learning simply does not work very well. The fact of the matter is that anyone in a classroom style learning environment forgets 75% of what they’ve learned after just 2 days.

We’ve had this information for a long time – over a hundred years, in fact. Hermann Ebbinghaus proved it in 1885 with what he called The Forgetting Curve:



Since then, it’s been proven and re-proven by study after study.  That’s dismal information for companies who have taken pride in creating informative training programs that encompass everything an employee needs to know (aka ‘the binder’). If they’re not getting what they need out of training, how does an employee become competent?

 Mostly, they do it by trial and error on the job.

mLearning to the Rescue

Mobile learning (or mLearning) can support an employee in a hands-on environment with a resource that gives him the right support at the right time. With mLearning, he can pull out his mobile app and get training, retrieve a job aid, or connect with an expert in real time. He can consult his app as he completes the task to be sure he’s doing it right, and he has the information available again if he needs it in the future.

The trick is how to get the right support at the right time?  Unfortunately a lot mLearning is just classroom style training ported to a mobile device. What’s missing is context.

And that’s where iBeacons come in. They’re all about providing context.

Adding iBeacons to the mLearning Mix

iBeacons have the potential to provide contextualized learning based on a user’s proximity. To demonstrate how this might work, we developed a simple concept app called Beacon Learn.  Its purpose is to initiate a dialogue with clients as to how they might consider using iBeacons to support Training and Learning in their organization.

The Beacon Learn app demonstrates four Use Cases:

  • Context Sensitive Training – delivery of the right content, to the right user, at the right time.

  • Job Aids – step by step guides presented to the user with compliance tracked in a Learning Record Store using the xAPI.

  • Expert Locator – using their iPhones as a iBeacon, experts can make others aware of their presence and availability for mentoring.

  • Emergency – although not really a training function, the ability for users to alert others of an emergency on the shop floor is a very useful feature that can be provided using a combination of iBeacons, M7 motion coprocessor and indoor mapping (iOS 8).

Use Case #1 – Context  Sensitive Training

Login Screen.pngHome.png


After initial login, the user is presented with four possible options to assist in on the job training/performance support. When a user selects Training, all training content relevant to the user and within the Far Proximity is presented, although it is inactive. Content is activated when the user advances to within the Near Proximity, as below:

Landing.pngIn Range.png


If the item is selected, training and support options specific to that user are presented.  They can watch a short demonstration video, access a step-by-step job aid, determine their competency with a quiz, or file a help ticket.

Printer Training.png

All interactions are tracked and reported back to the Learning Record Store using the xAPI. This is often an important point for corporate learning departments who are interested in using learning analytics for compliance or ROI purposes.

Stay tuned for part 2 of iBeacons for Learning where we will explore the other Use Cases presented in Beacon Learn along with the Future of Education in an iBeacon enabled world.

About the Author

Jody Baty

Jody Baty is a Senior Consultant and Project Manager at Roamable, where he specializes in Learning Management Systems implementations, Virtual classroom integrations, SCORM/AICC, xAPI, Content Authoring, and iOS-based mLearning apps.

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iWatch, iBeacon and What's Wrong With Wearables

iWatch Concept from Charlie No

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

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

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

What a Watch Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Control of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iBeacon: Programmed to Receive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More data, more information, and less time.

A Clean, Well-Lit Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will The iWatch Transmit or Receive?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a wearable form of identity and intent.

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

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

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iBeacon for Health: With BLE, a Nudge Will Do

Project Boundary wants to make you healthier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Nudges, Big Differences

Erik Bjontegard Presents at the SmartAmerica Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results That Matter

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

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

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

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

Privacy, Security and Your Very Personal Device

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beacons Hits The Beach – And a Magazine Near You

In a sign of how ubiquitous beacons will become, a campaign by Nivea shows that beacons definitely aren’t just for the shopping aisle – they’re for your kids, your dog or your refrigerator case full of caviar.

The following campaign highlights an amazing concept: that beacons can be distributed directly in a magazine. With waterproof paper, you detach the beacon and a ‘wrist band’, attach it you your child, and get notified on a companion app if he or she wanders off.

While the price of beacons might not make this an affordable campaign for every brand, the cost of beacons continue to come down – and instead of ordering your beacons online, there will come a day soon when they’re part of a magazine spread or sent to you in the mail.

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