How iBeacons could change the world forever

Retailers are likely to place iBeacons such as this one from Shopkick around their stores, in hopes of better connecting with and serving customers. (Courtesy of Shopkick)
Retailers are likely to place iBeacon sensors such as this one from Shopkick around their stores, in hopes of better connecting with and serving customers. (Courtesy of Shopkick)

Apps such as Google Maps and FourSquare have long used location data to try to improve the average person’s mobile experience. But that could be just the tip of the location iceberg as Bluetooth’s latest technology revolutionizes how people interact with everyday objects and places.

With iOS 7, Apple unveiled iBeacon, a feature that uses Bluetooth 4.0, a location based technology. This makes it possible for sensors to detect — within inches — how close a phone is. This is opening the door for groundbreaking services that could enhance the average person’s life.

“This might be the next big technology,”said Radius Networks chief executive Marc Wallace. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for developers to run with this and develop cool applications.” In one early implementation, Radius Networks teamed with the Consumer Electronics Association to launch an iBeacon-powered scavenger hunt at CES this week.

“From an opportunity perspective, I’d say everything is in place, and this thing is poised to be huge. The real question is over the next year there’s going to be a lot of experimentation, learning, etc.,” said Rob Murphy, vice president of marketing at Swirl, which is working with retailers to capitalize on the potential of iBeacons. “There will be a bunch more success stories. I think there will be some failures along the way.”

Just how might Bluetooth and iBeacons change your world? Here are nine possibilities, in no particular order:


This customer could be offered a coupon for an XBox. (Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

1. Get a coupon for 10 percent off a TV because you stood in the TV department.

Analysts agree that retail is where most consumers will first experience iBeacons. While officially the Apple protocol of Bluetooth, the word iBeacon is also used to refer to the Bluetooth-enabled sensors that retailers can place throughout their stores. If a customer downloads the store’s app and chooses to share his or her location, a store can track within inches the location of a customer.

While this raises privacy concerns and may seem creepy to some customers, there’s also potential for consumers to benefit from the exchange. Retailers can market offers to customers they know are interested in a specific service. And iBeacons could help a customer navigate a massive store to find the item they’re looking for.


Homes may never be the same. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

2. Your home will automatically react to you.

Imagine approaching your front door and having it automatically unlock as you are a step away. Then head into your living room and the TV automatically turns on — to your favorite channel.

“That’s where it’s all headed. Everything starting to transmit and talk to each other,” Wallace said. “The smart devices will know you’re in there, and they’re near each other.” Wallace, who experiments with the technology at his own home, said he now receives an e-mail whenever his children walk through the front door.

3. Your phone will give you a tour of museums.

“If I’m going to the Louvre and I’m interested in a certain time period, it can draw a custom map for me to navigate the Louvre,” said Suke Jawanda, the chief marketing officer at Bluetooth SIG. When a visitor arrives in front of an exhibit, extra information about the work of art could automatically be displayed on the visitor’s smartphone.

“Ultimately you’ll see self-tours where the app is adjusting itself based on where it knows where it is,” Wallace said.

4. Organize neighborhood pick-up games for kids.

“What if all Nerf footballs were connected? If I’m on my block and I take the toy outside, and that triggers a neighborhood child to know I’m nearby, that I’m in progress to the park. Somehow their toy buzzes and they go outside and we play a game of pickup football,” said Jen Quinlan, director of marketing at Mutual Mobile.


Fans such as this one at Nationals Park might not always have to search in their purse, pocket or smartphone for a ticket. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post)

5. Tickets that automatically load as you enter sporting events.

An iBeacon could identify that a fan is within feet of the turnstiles, and a related app will open on a user’s phone. A prompt could then ask if the fan would like to view his or her ticket for the day’s game. Fans wouldn’t have to search in their e-mail for their tickets. “People are spending 30 seconds sitting at a turnstile looking for a ticket. It causes a logjam; it’s a real problem,” Wallace said.

6. Win something for visiting a car dealership.

Businesses have huge incentives to get customers in their stores and on their lots. Quinlan suggested that an auto dealership could do a raffle of sorts, in which one customer wins a prize by being the first person to come in range of a beacon that’s hidden at random on the lot.

7. Toys that are aware of each other.

Imagine buying your children two Star Wars light sabers. Once the light sabers come within a few feet of each other, they could automatically light up.

8. Get a free cup of coffee or snack while pumping your gas.

For gas stations, customers become more valuable when they do more than buy gas. Thanks to an iBeacon the station could know when a customer is pumping gas. That’s the perfect chance to offer a discount on a sandwich or drink. “It’s value to you and value to the convenience store because you’ve now pulled them into the store to purchase something,” Wallace said.

9. Be warned that your bike or car is no longer in the garage.

“Did your teenager just borrow your car and pull it out of driveway?” Quinlan asked. With an iBeacon in your car and an iBeacon in the garage, that information could be e-mailed or sent to you through an app or push notification.

Nest’s smoke detector has shown the potential for a boring old object to be transformed into something that can change how we live with the latest technologies. This trend is likely to grow in 2014 as Bluetooth and iBeacon become more common. But it won’t happen without consumers trusting businesses and choosing to download their apps and share their location data. Marketers will have to prove that less privacy is worth the payoff.

Related: 10 bold predictions for 2014

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · January 7