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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iBeacon Wearables (And Outdoor Beacons Too!)

Bluetooth LE beacons built into sunglasses are getting a lot of press this week.

At 9to5Mac they report on an upcoming crowd funding campaign being planned by Tzukuri who have designed a beautiful set of frames with a built in beacon – misplace your sunglasses and an app on your phone will notify you that you’re leaving them behind.

But Tzukuri isn’t the only one creating iBeacon-enabled wearables. In fact, we’ve been creating sunglasses in our own design lab. Brock, my co-Founder at Dot3, models version one of our patent-pending BEEKn-Shade Technology:

BEEKn-Shade Technology!

GeLo and the All Weather Beacon

This is, however an early prototype. We used the GeLo beacon because it has excellent battery life, will work in all weather conditions, and has a high range.

GeLo Beacon

But GeLo recently announced the second generation of their product. Their new new OTAC beacon is protected by passcode authentication to prevent unauthorized changes — a major advancement in the beacon industry.  The new beacon allows customers to configure their own UUID, Major, Minor, advertising interval, advertising channels, transmission power, secret passkey and factory reset.

Al Juarez said that ““Many customers are seeking us out because of the all-weather, rugged nature of our beacons. The encrypted over-the-air configuration is also generating a strong market response and bringing in more users.”

We plan to update our sunglass prototype to the new GeLo product – we’ve long been fans of their beacon, especially for outdoors. And having a beacon option that uses standard AA batteries rather than coin operated makes a lot of sense for some uses.

So while you can wait for Tzukuri to get its funding and release its beacon-powered sunglasses, you don’t really need to look much further than the team here at BEEKn if you want an immediate wearable!

Oh…and if you’re interested, we’re also prototyping a beacon for pets. The problem is, our dog can’t seem to change the battery:

Share Your Thoughts

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So can we aid you to the list for a set of GeLo powered beacon sunglasses? Have you used the new GeLo beacons? What’s your choice if you’re looking for a beacon that works in unusual conditions like cold weather?

iBeacon Sees the Light: Powering a New Generation of Bluetooth LE

iBeacon Light Harvesting

Next Generation of Devices Use Energy Harvesting

Balancing the user experience with maintaining battery power on an iBeacon or Bluetooth LE device is a key development challenge.

Set your advertising or signal power too high and your battery will run out in weeks. Set it too low and your battery could last years – but there could be a significant delay in your users getting beacon “messages” – receiving a welcome alert when they’re in the restroom instead of at the front door of your restaurant.

But a new generation of Bluetooth LE beacons use energy harvesting and remind us that while iBeacon technology may be relatively simple, we’re still at the earliest days of the technology. Yesterday’s world-class beacon may soon seem like a relic of a different time compared to their new, um, higher powered cousins.

The iBeacon Conundrum: Brand or Specification?

Estimote this week published an excellent post outlining how to conserve battery on their devices.

But the post isn’t just a primer for Estimote. It’s for anyone who wants a quick cheat sheet on how long a beacon will last at different signal and power strengths. It serves as an excellent response to concerns that the Apple specification for iBeacon might put a lot of pressure on battery life. With Apple requiring a 100ms advertising interval, many battery-powered beacons would only last a few months.

Of course, this leads to an interesting question: who cares? And I tend to side in the camp that says that while Apple may have a specification, that doesn’t mean you need to use it.

In fact, the value of the iBeacon name attached to a beacon seems, for now at least, to be negligible. It’s great marketing. But your beacon will work just as well whether it has the iBeacon trademark affixed or not.

In theory, a beacon could be two things at once: an iBeacon (meeting their specifications for broadcasting) or just a good old Bluetooth LE beacon when broadcasting at a different interval or power strength than the Apple specification.

Most retailers or venues won’t even know the difference.

The iBeacon name, therefore, can simply mean this: we love Apple, we love using their trademark, but use our beacon however you please. 

Battery and Signals

The Estimote post reminds us of the challenge device makers face in jumping ahead of the curve, or waiting for the technology to settle down:

We became the first company to ship beacons in July of last year, because we wanted the developers in our community to get to play with our Dev Kits as early as possible – introducing them to the possibilities of next generation context-aware applications.

At that time, Apple was still finalizing the iBeacon specification. We didn’t wait for them to finish, deciding instead to ship the beacons with our default settings because we knew it would be easy to update configurations live. We are tremendously happy to have built a huge community of developers who have helped us to test and validate both the beacons themselves and a slew of beacon applications.

After a quick overview of the physics of signals, Estimote offers a handy guide to battery life….one which would roughly apply to most of the popular coin-battery operated beacons:

Battery Life Comparisons | via Estimote

A New Generation of Beacons

A new generation of devices, kits and chips is hoping to make these tradeoffs a thing of the past. Using light harvesting, they offer a way to power beacons without any batteries at all.

Light-Harvesting Beacon: Netclearance m1Beacon

Netclearance Systems

Netclearance Systems is staking a claim to be first out of the gate. Their m1BeaconLite uses the latest in energy-harvesting and storage technology that converts ambient light into a power source capable of handling a typical BLE application.

“Energy harvesting delivers a scalable and environmental-friendly approach to indoor beacon deployments while reducing the total cost of beacon ownership,” said Jack Donner, Chief Technology Officer. “Most indoor venues such as airports, stadiums, retail stores, hotels, shopping centers have an abundance of high intensity ambient light. The tremendous operational and energy-harvesting efficiency of the m1BeaconLite…enables our customers to realize the benefits of beacons without having to manage battery-life or wired installations.”

Texas Instruments

Meanwhile, Texas Instruments has been making waves of its own.  While TI chips power a range of existing beacons, the company has become a competitor to other beacon makers.

By releasing its SensorTag beacon, they may well have recognized that they had a chance to grab some of the margins that other device makers were grabbing by releasing its own product.

But TI isn’t being left behind on the energy front. They offer their own reference design for using light harvesting to drive device development:

This subsystem reference design is highly differentiated over existing solutions as it incorporates no batteries, thus eliminating the hassle of battery replacement, battery charging, and saving costs associated with battery maintenance.  This solution also ensures that there are no constraints around installation as long as there is typical indoor lighting available.  There is also no ON/OFF switch; the entire load connection and disconnection is handled by the power management IC therefore ensuring that the solution is self managing.

Based on this, we should start to see existing device makers incorporate this approach into new lines of iBeacon devices.

(But please…would someone at Texas Instruments recognize how bloody awful your website is? It’s almost impossible to find information!)

Will Estimote Launch a New Beacon?

We’re told that Estimote is planning to release a new line of beacons. Perhaps their next generation device will use energy harvesting. Maybe it will use a new form factor that makes it easier to change the battery!

Regardless, we expect to see them and others launch new beacons, new devices, and set new standards for quality. Some won’t even use batteries at all.

Soon, we’ll be able to worry more about the user experience and less about how to configure our beacons so they don’t go dead a month or two after being deployed above the front door of your store.

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Are there other light harvesting beacon solutions that we’ve missed? Is this a trend or a dead end? If nothing else, does it suggest that the current generation of devices will look like prototypes in the years ahead?

Airbnb iBeacon? The Future of the Smart Hotel

Just like retailers imagine they can reinvigorate retail through beacons, so do hotels. But while they seek to reinvent their industries, they also need to keep an eye out for newcomers and imagine how upstarts like Uber or Airbnb might reimagine the end-to-end experience of place.

The Smart Hotel

Tim Groot imagines traditional hotels in which you don’t even need a room key – using your phone and iBeacon, doors can automagically swing open and you might be able to bypass the front desk entirely.

He suggests that as people become more and more accustomed to smart homes, the logical next step would be for this to translate to hotels. By connecting the hotel app on your smart phone with Bluetooth LE powered beacons it’s the equivalent of carrying around a ‘personal concierge’ on your smart phone.

He brainstorms how an iBeacon hotel might lead to a better experience for guests:

  • The app can streamline the check-in experience by, for one, providing you with your electric room key through the beacon located at the hotel entrance
  • Beacons can help you find your room in a large hotel and provide a vibrant room service experience for guests
  • The app, if customized fully, can also help guests to truly personalize their experience by allowing them to choose room size, décor, entertainment options, etc.

Groot closes by writing that “Smart hotels will be realized. The only question is: By who?” Indeed.


Look no further than Airbnb, which doesn’t see lodging and renting rooms as a simple commodity, but as marketplaces of experiences.

Fast Company reports that the Airbnb CEO has a larger strategy to create a brand around the entire hospitality and travel experience and extend beyond matching room-holders and room-renters:

Chesky has decided that Airbnb will become nothing less than a full-blown hospitality brand, one that delivers a seamless end-to-end experience when its customers travel. “If you ask Brian now what drives Airbnb’s growth, it’s not that people want to get a cheaper space,” says Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, an early investor.

“Airbnb could’ve spread out horizontally into the sharing of power tools and cars and stuff like that. But Brian has decided the growth is in hospitality.”….Reimagining “the entire trip,” the $6 trillion travel industry itself, is an audacious goal…How do you get into those other areas of the trip, like the car ride from the airport and exploring the neighborhood where you’re staying?

iBeacon and connected devices could very well be part of that larger vision. Beacons placed in a room you’re renting could instantly connect you to a secure local social network or provide an added sense of security. For the host, a beacon can report back that the guest has arrived or trigger call-backs or follow-ups by Airbnb when the customer wakes up in the morning or checks out at the end of the stay.

Because the travel experience doesn’t just take place in a hotel, you can imagine beacons for every leg of the trip. A special Airbnb beacon that you wear on your wrist or an app that acts as a beacon when you hit a new town can alert you to “Airbnb friendly” hot spots – a local pub, a restaurant or a community center.

It’s The Experience That Matters

So like everything with beacons, they’re just a gateway to a larger question: if the physical world is being reinvented as a new digital media channel, how will entire industries be transformed by the convergence of the online with the atomic?

And how can a hotel be more than a hotel? How can we move past the old paradigms of room keys and guest bedrooms and think of hotels as media platforms, as hubs in a larger community, or as pop-up social networks…facilitated by beacons, and by the promise they hold of not just an Internet of Things or Everything…but an Internet of Experience and Delight.

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

And let us know what you think – what’s your craziest idea for beacons in hotels? Will beacons help reinvent the hotel experience? Or will they end up learning from innovators like Airbnb?

From Disney to Tulips: iBeacon and the Future of Attractions

With tens of millions of dollars of investment and the Disney Empire behind it, the MagicBand has redefined how a place-based experience can be…well, magical:

disney-magicbandIt’s a unique system that uses a sensor laden wristband to enhance the entire spectrum of their Disney experience from trip planning, ticketing and access to payment and photo management.

The entire Disney guest experience is now able to be centralized into one CRM tool. Guests are able to use it as a room key for their resort room, pay for items in the park, act as a park pass, get them in the fast lane with FastPass and collect all their photos during their stay.

It not only enhances the guest experience but also improves efficiencies for Disney and in theory, revenue.

The Magic Kingdom is a reminder that the world of iBeacon technology won’t be limited to the devices you place on the wall.

We are all, after all, beacons on the Internet of Everything – and Bluetooth LE will facilitate everything from ‘push’ content and coupons to payments and concierge services.

But it doesn’t take a global mega brand and gazillions of dollars to enrich a place-based experience.

And the proof is in tulips.

Labwerk iBeacon Platform at Tulpenland

ibeacon-tulpenlandIf you don’t know Labwerk you should.

We’ve been following the world of iBeacon and location-based technology for a while now and they’re in a class of their own. In fact, if anyone can do Disney better than Disney it will be Labwerk (and at probably 1/100,000th of the cost!).

Today they announced a deal to bring iBeacon to Tulpenland, a tulip-focused theme park that attracts visitors from around the world.

As readers of this blog know, Bluetooth LE is powering a new generation of devices (including iBeacon) that allows phones of all types to receive content, coupons or offers based on proximity: you stand near the chip aisle and receive a special offer, or you get a welcome message when you walk in the front door of Macy’s.

But what we love most about the Tulpenland example is the focus on storytelling:

“We’re looking forward to implementing this new way of sharing the story of the tulip. We see iBeacon technology as a great way to engage with our visitors, particularly those of a younger age, who can be quite difficult to connect with”.

With iBeacon technology, visitors will be able to access greater information in more formats. “We have always been limited by the type and amount of information that currently accompanies our displays. With the LabWerk app we will be able to offer this content in a more engaging way” van de Hoek said. “We’re looking forward incorporating the use of video, audio and adding further depth to our information for those visitors who would like to know the story of the tulip in more detail”.

In a world of connected devices the coupon will count – but stories will be magical. And it won’t take a trip to Disney to experience them…or might trigger a trip to North Holland instead.

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Who's Winning the War for Beacons? Bluetooth LE Statistics

App Captures Beacon Data

EarthPing is  a Research Project Setting Out to Collect Bluetooth LE Data

How many iBeacon devices are there in your local mall? How many connected products use Bluetooth LE?

One developer wants us to all help find out and to contribute to a global effort to gather stats. BlueScan is an Android app that lets you scan for Bluetooth LE devices and beacons and even in its earliest days it’s unearthing some great insights.

The data it collects is being used in EarthPing, a project that’s looking to aggregate insights into the number and ratio of iBeacon and Bluetooth LE devices, and is being led by John Abraham who is clearly passionate about the project.

While some of the comments on the Google Play download page show that some folks have downloaded the app to help them relocate their lost FitBit, the larger intention is a giant cloud sourced effort to keep track of beacons.I also suspect that the app is also be used by developers in their offices to range and test their beacon kits.

Early Indicators

But the early statistics hold some important reminders. Among them: while beacons like Estimote are important, they represent only a sliver of the actual number of Bluetooth LE powered devices. With your iPhone or iPad being a Bluetooth LE device it’s no wonder.

Total Devices 22,944 Total devices in EarthPing database
Apple Devices 1,477 This is mostly iPhones and Macbooks
Private Registrations 304 Is big brother watching you!? These are Bluetooth radios that have anonymously registered MAC addresses with the IEEE
Beacons 410 This is the total count of Bluetooth LE beacons: Estimote, Insiteo, Gelo, Kontakt, Gimbal(Qualcomm), indoors
Fitbit 1,438 Devices identified as “Flex”, “One”, “Zip”, “Force” or “Quark” Fitbit models
SensorTag 57 Texas Instruments BLE dev kit

John tells me that the users of his app are predominantly from Europe and Asia with good representation in major cities in the U.S. including New York, LA, Boston, DC and San Francisco (which, again, may represent developer hot spots rather than casual users).

Where Do We See Bluetooth LE?

He also said that an early review of the data set elicited the following observations:

  • Some facilities appear to have multiple beacon brands onsite
  • Most facilities have multiple beacons (as you’d expect)
  • Retail, hotels, universities, insurance, and large US tech companies were recorded as having beacons on site
  • Europe appears to be early adopters

John notes that “I am seeing them on the freeways in California. As it turns out our state road organization (CALTRANS) is testing the use of Bluetooth radios on freeways to measure traffic speed.” This kind of insight is the hidden kind of hidden gold that his project will unearth over time.

While the data is early and likely skewed by high use among the developer community (and users who have lost their FitBit watches) the data will only get better as more people download BlueScan.

Apple customers? You’re out of luck. Because while most of the beacons being found are compatible with Apple iBeacon, only Android lets you scan for beacons that aren’t your own – and so we need to rely on the ‘Droids to conduct this kind of in-the-field research.

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