By Ryan Matzner
This past June at the WWDC, Apple quietly announced a new feature called iBeacon along with the new iOS7. iBeacon allows any Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) enabled device to be turned into a "beacon" that transmits data to iOS7 devices once they are detected and within range. iBeacons have a higher degree of location accuracy than GPS and can be utilized to geofence very specific regions (including indoor spaces) using relatively low-cost signal emitters or other iOS devices, making it an ideal profile for app developers seeking basic micro-location capabilities.
iBeacons will allow mobile apps to target users more accurately than any other technology has allowed before without draining your phone's battery. For these reasons and more iBeacon presents a revolutionary opportunity for app developers and retailers interested in indoor mapping, mobile payments and targeted advertising.
But What About NFC?
Apple has largely chosen to bypass NFC, the longstanding norm, for BLE and the company's "all-in" strategy with BLE may be an astute one. BLE technology such as iBeacon has a few key differences from NFC that could potentially propel it to become the norm, or at the very least, help it see heavy adoption in the retail sector.
Perhaps the most significant and revolutionary difference is that BLE-enabled iBeacon can transmit data up to 160 feet. Compared to NFC, which only works only over very short distances, this is a big deal, particularly for anyone interested in the indoor mapping and mobile payments space, the latter of which is heating up with payment companies like Square and Venmo in the mix.
With this type of long range, any retailer will be able to set up BLE beacons and develop apps that guide users around its space. Phones will also be able to detect when a person is standing in front of a particular display, and tailor messages or media to them in that moment. (Remember this scene from Minority Report?)
Users can also pay for their goods in a store without having to whip out their phones or credit cards to "touch" or "tap" anything. The payment experience will be completely hands-free. In fact, the "hands-free movement" may be the next iteration of mobile payments; PayPal's implementation of BLE, called PayPal Beacon, has already launched in San Francisco in hopes to usher in this new movement.
iBeacon also presents perks to developers and third parties who choose to implement beacons in their physical spaces. For starters, it's far more affordable to implement BLE than NFC; a BLE-enabled beacon like Estimote can cost $99 for a set of three, whereas NFC tags at let's say, ten cents each, added to individual products in a retail store could add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
BLE presents other efficiencies too: firmware updates can be transmitted over-the-air, making maintenance a breeze. The iBeacon profile also allows for open source development. Apple has yet to release specifications for iBeacon, but a few hardware developers such as Kontakt have already begun to provide dev kits by reverse engineering the software. With the iBeacon's profile specifically, Apple has an advantage over Google and Microsoft: Apple's iOS devices from the iPhone 4S and up are all BLE-enabled, whereas Android devices are highly fragmented, making it a less stable platform for the technology.
A Retail Revolution in the Making
There are many applications that currently use iBeacon, and they're all just a taste of the revolutionary applications to come. It has been reported that Apple may have demonstrated its first public application of iBeacon (or at the very least, BLE-enabled technology) with a "one-touch-setup" of Apple TV. "Tapping" an Apple TV 3G with a recent, Bluetooth-enabled iOS device during setup will auto-configure the device, creating a seamless and elegant experience for the user.
Major League Baseball has also begun experimenting with iBeacons for a better fan experience in its stadiums. It plans to roll out iBeacons to deliver targeted information and offers based on a fan's location within the park.
The rise of iBeacons also naturally means the rise of hardware that supports the technology. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has identified many profiles for BLE, among them "health care" and "sports and fitness" profiles, which make the technology ripe for wearables. While not related to either of these spaces, BeLuvv Guardian is a wearable device for children built upon iBeacon. The basic premise is that any child wearing this device can be located by their parents if they happen to run astray, or be protected by designated "guardians" with iOS7 devices.
We should expect to see more wearable devices and other hardware that will take advantage of BLE and iBeacons in the near future, as well as hardware companies that will build beacons themselves such as Estimote. Already, innovations like the August Smart Lock and "help me find my lost items" tech like Chipolo and Tile utilize BLE and have received much buzz. Technology like iBeacons may even be the missing link that can help proliferate the Internet of Things and the creation of a network of "smart" physical objects and goods.