New waves of low cost devices are hitting Industry enabling a vast array of possibilities. Users are expecting more information delivered appropriately and easily while becoming more reticent to hand over personal information. Companies do not want to offer free Wi-Fi to everyone - it is an enabler to better customer service – or at least it should be! So in this world where location defines everything from a tweet to a flight booking there is a gap waiting to be filled, accurate location information when in a building. Wi-Fi location systems are available and they work when carefully deployed but they are expensive and even today struggle with the fast moving changes in environment and user density. So here comes the iBeacon to save the day…
What is an iBeacon?
A very simple low cost Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter which can be the size of a USB plug. Each transmitter sends out 3 numbers, a UUID (Unique Unit Identifier), a Major and a Minor number. At first glance one may write it off as a geek object, but when this simple information is sent with controlled power output and timing interval that allows a client to not only hear the iBeacon but also work out how far away it is from the client – now the possibilities are much wider. Most ‘tracking’ capabilities are aimed at tracking a user for whatever purpose and this has caused something of a backlash in the press, iBeacons are different as they are just transmitting the same information over and over again and the client is now in charge, they choose to listen to the information or not (or at least the device ‘owner’ gets to choose). So these devices become much less threatening than traditional MAC listening techniques or GSM Cell location solutions. The downside is that the user requires an app to read these beacons – but more and more apps are hitting the market and the app approach will win out in the end. The key point here is to convince a user to download an app and ideally your app. Once they have your app installed you can communicate with them in a much more personal way and even when they are not in your network. So let the symbiosis of free wireless begin. The owner of the network wants to know more about the user of the network, the user wants a better experience while on the network, both must provide recompense to the other.
It should be noted that the current app availability is minimal at best, the following paragraphs are concerned with concepts and possibilities rather than currently available apps.
The simplest quick win is in retail – in all its forms. How often have you been in an electrical appliance store and been waiting for the limited attention of an assistant? If that store had a series of iBeacons and an app the customer could download it could offer detailed specifications about the TV you are looking at, an assistant could be paged and directed to where you were when you paged or in real time work out where you have moved to after pressing the page button. The page could also be location dependant, if you ask for help while in the dishwasher section a representative who understands dishwashers would be sent to you. In more general retail, special offers when you approach the exit or a specific area of the store, if the app is loaded on a device owned by a man who is waiting outside the ladies changing rooms for a long time offer him a TV channel to watch – or inform the authorities dependant on how long he has been there… iBeacons on IOS devices can also trigger an application to launch – so a beacon in the store entrance could automatically launch your application and offer the customer untold delights should they visit the store and head for a particular department – which of course the app would know they had or had not done. Take the next level up to entire shopping malls (centres!) and an interactive map application could easily direct you to the retailer of choice (either the customers choice or the app owners choice!). The benefits for users with limited vision or other disabilities are also enormous, being able to direct a wheelchair user to the best way to the food court on the 3rd floor while also offering a blind person a running commentary on each retail outlet as they walk by would vastly improve the quality of the experience. There are a number of retail stories in the press around iBeacon technology as it is a growing area:
The holy grail of knowing who your customer is and where they are in the store at all times is a reality, it is just a case of providing the customer with enough of a reason to give you that information. It’s not just about retail, iBeacons will impact many other areas of business. One related example is Finance, consider the trading environment and the number of controls that exist to ensure traders conduct business in an appropriate manner. It is trivial to ensure the trader is connected to the right network but not so easy to know exactly where the trader is, particularly with Wi-Fi enabled systems. A trader may be on the pavement outside the office or even in a nearby coffee house and still able to connect to the enterprise Wi-Fi but not in a recognised location. It need not be outside the building, there are areas where trading is prohibited inside the office environment. iBeacons provide a simple low cost solution, the trading app simply has to ensure the correct iBeacon is in range to allow the trade to be performed. If a trader operates away from their own desk then this could be flagged or not, a simple set of low power iBeacons would clearly and simply define the area that was available for trading. The app could also refuse to load if outside the iBeacon area to ensure that if a device was lost / stolen it would have little or no use to the new owner. Management of these iBeacons in this environment becomes a major concern, for example if an iBeacon is cloned. This can be addressed with wireless networks such as Aerohive who will be introducing BLE devices in their APs to not only act as iBeacons but also monitor and manage other iBeacons in range. This would ensure that if a cloned iBeacon was used in the office environment the Aerohive APs would pick up and flag the clone, if it was used at home to trade then the network validation would show the user was not in the office environment and again raise an alert. Security patrols in this secure environment (or any environment) could use an app to log where and when they were patrolling a particular location, even then using the same app to control appropriate cameras that cover their current location, all based on the simple iBeacon technology. Finally consider the applications in a distributed enterprise, information changes as users move from one location to another, the simpler is it for a device to know which location it is in then the quicker the user can access resources and start being productive. Time and attendance applications are simple to implement with iBeacon – admittedly it validates the device’s attendance rather than the user but the two are often closely linked. Meeting rooms are one of the most valuable resources in any organisation today, a simple iBeacon in each room when tied to the time and attendance app would allow central visibility on the number of people in each meeting room and the duration of those meetings. It would also be trivial to find an empty meeting room and get directions to it in large organisations. Hospitality services in the same meeting rooms could also be driven from the employees device, even lighting and projector control could be driven by the end users phone once the location is confidently understood. It is possible to postulate and theorise on this subject for days and still have unique ideas, the above three sample shots are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The utilisation in Museums for guided tours, hospitals for locating vital equipment and staff, theme parks for making sure your child does not wander off more than 10 feet from you and a hundred other applications are just waiting for the right companies to deliver and maximise this simple and ingenious technology.
- Article kindly contributed by Philip Keeley, Principal Systems Engineer at Aerohive Networks
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