Our Tech-curious Developer Chris Jolley delves into the world of beacons to see how they're being used, who's doing it well and the impact it's having on retail.

Over to Chris...

Towards the end of the year, it's always great to look back at the news, ideas, trends and advances that have impressed people and gained momentum. I like to imagine which of those will go from strength to strength in 2017.

One technology that has seen a particularly interesting year, especially in retail, is beacon technology. It's been used to attract and assist customers, through the now ever-growing ’Physical Web’.

The Physical Web

The term 'Internet of Things' has been around for some time now, as we see appliances, vehicles, devices, and even entire homes becoming ‘smart’ and interconnected.

The idea of the Physical Web takes this even further, and beacons are possibly the missing link or standard needed that will allow this to really explode in all areas of life.

Beacons, you say?

A beacon is a tiny low powered bluetooth radio device that can be placed, usually almost invisibly, along with other similar beacons within a physical space.

Apple have had their own standard of beacon technology, geared towards connecting to iOS7, iOS8 and later devices, unsurprisingly called iBeacon, since 2013. Google has now furnished us all with the ‘Eddystone’, which is much more than iBeacon for Android. It is a complete open source standard focused around broadcasting URLs for beacon devices, in order to achieve almost any purpose you can imagine.

Beacons can be used to great effect in many places; part of a promotional display, at regular intervals around a store, at a museum, at a transport hub, the list goes on. Beacons are probably best described as an assistive technology and can be used to perform a number of tasks, for example:

  • Check in / check out functionality
  • Direct users to a particular app
  • Emergency and time-critical location-based alerting
  • Revealing promotions and delivering vouchers
  • Tracking dwell time and popularity
  • Measuring crowding, footfall, and ‘traffic’ throughout a store
  • Recognising repeat custom and 'VIPs'
  • Alerting in store staff ("can I help you with this product?")
  • Providing additional product info, videos and even personalised contextual marketing materials

Transactions

I predict that even entertainment and physical real-world gaming of some form, based around movement (think Pokemon Go here, but with a more physical, location-based aspect) may become viable and popular if the right ‘killer app’ appears in combination with a large scale beacon deployment in 2017.

Apps and browsers

Early adopter beacon deployments have been based around specific bespoke apps, designed to use specific beacon networks in specific ways in specific locations. That’s a lot of specifics!

But while the technology is in its infancy, the bespoke handling through new apps has been necessary. As the technology grows though, this could become a limiting factor or at least a competitive challenge because not everybody wants to install a new app for every store or scenario where beacons might be being used.

As early as February this year, Google helpfully begun to address this issue by bringing beacon support into beta versions of their chrome web browser. As of version 49, chrome for Android will be able to surface physical web content, and chrome for iOS now has similar support. This means that it will be possible to start using beacons without the overhead of developing or procuring an app to go with your beacon campaign. Instead, anything available to a standard web browser can be broadcast by your beacons.

Who are the early adopters?

Here's some examples of who's been using beacons and what they've been doing. 

Walgreens

National Slate Museum Wales - OK yes, this is a bit random, but this is one of the best examples of the different ways that beacons can enhance experiences

Heineken interactive displays

Tesco

McDonalds

Virgin Atlantic iBeacon trial at Heathrow

The challenges

There are of course challenges in adopting a new technology and the biggest is probably around standardisation and making future-proof choices, where possible.

Other challenges include the same familiar words that often go hand in hand with new advances - security, platform selection, analytics and metrics, technical support, maintenance and upkeep.

The common theme at the moment seems to be ‘we don’t know’ when it comes to finding all of the answers, but 2017 is going to see that change.

Furthermore, when the world is your oyster to an extent, deciding what your nice new beacon network and apps can and should focus on providing is difficult. Working with experienced integrators and researching carefully what has worked and what's not, and always asking that favoured question - why? - will be key to getting off the ground with beacons.

The good news is, compared to early 2016 and previous years, a quick Google search is showing a very healthy array of beacon-orientated news, documentation and discussion.

The future

I absolutely cannot state loudly and enthusiastically enough just how much this new physical layer could change the digital world around us. It’s even got its own marketing buzz-term already - ’proximity marketing’. Except, saying that, it’s not really about change, as much as it is about accessibility and increasing that in an even more direct and tangible way.

As we’ve seen time and time again, accessibility, whether through contactless payments, tablet devices, handheld terminals, interactive displays, click and collect, and so many other new ideals has only made things bigger, better, faster, and more rewarding, in the retail space particularly. Importantly, this is true for the retailer, just as much as it is for the (potential) customer.

There is no limit on how far beacon technology could spread and where we could start to see it appear. Imagine the possibilities around any physical location, from a bus stop to a medical waiting room, a gym, running track, football stadium or music festival. Anything under the sun, or indoors hidden from it, is possible, and it’s going to be fascinating seeing innovators picking this up and running with it. A time will come when the physical internet is nothing more than an additional ubiquitous means to consume the web, that we won’t think of as any different to how we see the web currently.

It’s likely that when beacon networks become commonplace in the world around us, particularly in our cities, they will start to be used in ways that we cannot foresee or guess at right now. That’s brilliant, because in that, lies further innovation and advancement.

A final thought. Adding in augmented and virtual reality devices and displays, and combining them with beacons for entertainment or service delivery alike is going to make for an even more ‘science fiction’ universe right here in our everyday lives. That can only be a good thing for anybody involved in the digital landscape, but especially, as with retailers, those with a physical footprint.

It’s expected that 400 million beacons will be deployed by 2020. That’s probably conservative. Very conservative.


Hungry for more? 

Here's some further reading, and of course if you have any questions about your beacon implementation, get in touch.

Some more successes and real world trials

5 impressive beacon success stories

 



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