There is great interest about iBeacons, the latest technology that Apple introduced with iOS7 and activated in early December in 254 US Stores.
The technology immediately caught the attention of tech media, while stimulating the appetite of retail marketers.
We’ve wondered about Apple response to the emerging use of NFC. Well, this is it. Allow me to explain what iBeacons are, why you should care, the advantages and disadvantages of the technology and some potential uses for the event industry.
iWhat? What You Need to Know about iBeacons
The iBeacon is essentially a transmitter. It works through the Low Energy Bluetooth (BLE) technology and specifically, as Wikipedia suggests, via Proximity Sensing.
iBeacons can be very small transmitters of the size of a coin or USB drive. The thing is that every iPhone and iPad can be turned into an iBeacon, skyrocketing the number of the devices enabled to support the technology to 250 Million.
Ok but how does it work?
The transmitter sends a message via Bluetooth when a device with an app that uses iBeacon is in proximity.
The user receives a push notification on their screen.
The receiver can be both an iOS7 or Android 4.3 powered device.
The big differentiator from NFC is essentially range. As Wikipedia says:
NFC range is up to 20 cm (7.87 inches) but the optimal range is less than 4 cm (1.57 inches). iBeacons have up to 50 m range
Moreover the technology is essentially built into the Location and Notification services of your mobile, fitting into the existing apps you use on your phone.
In fact users will have to carry on their phone an app that uses iBeacons to be able to receive data. That also means that you will need to opt-in in order to receive information.
The first barrier is Bluetooth. I believe that the biggest barrier here is that Bluetooth needs to be on in order for the process to take place. While researching this piece I noticed that very few outlets mention this detail.
With battery being a very substantial problem of all smartphones, not all users will leave Bluetooth open at all times. Personally I don’t and never will unless there is a specific task that requires Bluetooth to be open (i.e. syncing data or tethering).
The third issue is push notifications. You are walking into the aisle of your fav grocery store and all of a sudden you hear your phone buzzing. It’s not an SMS from your pal, but the iBeacon telling you throughout the store app there is a special offer on cabbage.
Yes you may love cabbage but this is not the point. The point is that we are getting yet another interruption in a very chaotic and marketing packed world. Push notifications are a very delicate marketing tool and they need to be used carefully or they will annoy the hell out of the user.
How to Use iBeacons at Events
Who should be really interested in iBeacons is event mobile app providers. I could picture a lot of the functionality that comes with event mobile apps becoming much more relevant if in conjunction with iBeacons.
If you take for example exhibitions or large festivals/concerts, one of the best applications of event mobile apps would be floor maps. Where can I find the restrooms is essentially the most recurring question information desks get. Mostly because we are too lazy to read signs.
iBeacons would be a great way to recognise where you are on the floor and direct you to the desired location.
iBeacons could also replace useless promotional USB sticks (or worse brochures) with much more targeted messages when attendees approach a promotional stand.
Gamified events will surely benefit from this technology. The aforementioned CES iBeacon powered Scavenger Hunt is a prime example of how to use iBeacons to gamify events.
The transmitter can also understand whether you are standing in a specific place for a longer time. Picture attendees waiting in lines for on-site registration, you could start engaging with them and giving information about the event. This is also an amazing opportunity to gather real time analytics for crowd and flow management.
If you want to avoid lines altogether, you could send a QR code once the attendee reaches the venue and simplify check in.
Talking about check-in you could reward the attendees that access specific areas of your venue.
The receiver can also talk back to the beacon, for example telling the caterer the food preferences of the device owner.
These are just some of the applications of this innovative technology. Companies such as Radius Networks already offer software to turn your Bluetooth enabled Mac into a fully configurable iBeacon for less than $10.
The iBeacon is surely one powerful and at the same time controversial technology that can potentially change the way we attend events in the future.
Apps using iBeacons can close the gap between online and offline opening a great scenario of real time marketing and analytics.
There are definitely concerns in terms of privacy and intrusion yet the enormous push that the service is receiving is worth the attention of the tech savvy event professional.
What to do now? Document yourself, ask your event mobile app provider and think how you can add value through iBeacons, as at the end of the day, this is what it is all about, making the experience better.