Beacons and the Internet of Things to Come
The “Internet of Things”, or IoT is defined as “a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.”
The World of Beacons
A beacon has been traditionally defined as “a light or other visible object serving as a signal, warning, or guide.” That is until 2013 when Apple released its “iBeacon.” ( https://developer.apple.com/ibeacon/ )
Since the release of Apple’s iBeacon, the definition of beacon has evolved. Using inspiration from the traditional definition, one could now define beacon as “a connected object serving as a signal, warning, or guide.”
There have been others, including Google who have released their own beacons, Software Development Kits (SDKs), and hardware.
These beacons come in many shapes and sizes. They can be little blocks that are stuck to a wall, or stickers that can be added to hang tags in a retail environment. There is a company that sells beacons that are embedded into an electrical wall outlet. There are companies that buy beacons from manufacturers in China and white-label them, and there is Google’s most recent foray into the world of beacons: the “Physical Web.” ( https://google.github.io/physical-web/ )
While there are a multitude of beacons being used in many different ways, they all seek to accomplish the same thing: to serve as signals, warnings, and guides.
Signals, Warnings, and Guides
Today, beacons are being used in pilot studies, field tests, and in enterprise applications across the globe. Some of these studies are have been successful, and some are realizing the limitations of the technology, and then there are those who are experiencing failures due to how the beacons are implemented.
In August or 2014, an article in Forbes recounts the struggles that Target has encountered with their rollout of beacons in retail locations. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/quickerbettertech/2015/08/24/why-targets-beacon-strategy-is-doomed )
These struggles can be attributed not only to the technology required for consumers to experience the beacon, but also the misconceptions of how consumers behave within the environment that these beacons are placed.
Target chose to use beacons to push product advertisements to customers in their retail locations who cross paths with a beacon. Target assumed that users are likely to have their phone out, and ready to receive notifications while they are shopping .
Gene Marks writes:
“Of course, shoppers are carrying around their smartphones, texting friends and families and checking the Internet. But when in-store they are there to shop, not stare at their smartphone. I’ve watched my wife stow away her phone just so that she can focus on that great pair of shoes or a dress she spotted. Shopping is itself a fun experience using most of our senses, smartphones not included.”
In a retail environment like Target, consumers are already engaged with their surroundings. An alert on their smartphone would only serve as another distraction or disruption in the consumers’ experience.
Gene Marks offers some insight into how Target, or any other retail location could make a better use of beacons that serve as an extension of the retail environment.
“… a good retail app using beacon technology should be standing by to answer questions and make suggestions once the shopper asks for help, not before.”
If technology is going to be a part of the retail environment, it must ehance the experience in a way that is pleasing and useful to the user — an extension the user’s natural environment.
Imagine walking into a shoe store. You see a pair of shoes you love and walk over to pick them up. The beacon, in this case a small sticker attached to the sole of the shoe, knows you’ve picked it up. It knows which shoe it’s attached to. On a screen to the right of the shoe display a photo of the shoe appears. The screen asks you if you’d like to try on a pair and in which size.
In this example, the beacon extends the environment of the consumer, rather than disrupts it.
In March 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ( the MET ), a well known museum in NYC, published an article documenting their pilot study on the use of beacons. (http://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/digital-underground/2015/beacons)
Knowing that GPS doesn’t work well indoors, the MET used a series of beacons which could triangulate a user and determine their location within the museum. The MET also used the beacons to extend their mobile app in way which was similar to a guided tour. As a visitor would walk through the museum, supplemental materials could be pushed to the visitor as they approached an exhibit or instillation.
“The initial beacon experiment in the MediaLab’s space demonstrated that beacon technology could provide a valuable locative context to the Met’s visitors — including supplementary audio and video content, and descriptions of the objects. Beyond the initial supplementary content, the beacons can be a valuable tool in informing visitors about locations of special exhibitions, libraries, dining venues, and other amenities, as well as alerting visitors about current tours and events happening relative to their location.”
But, the MET quickly realized that the beacons they were using were adversely affected by certain environmental factors. Although the beacons are said to have several years of battery life, the temperature in the musem had a significantly negative effect.
“moving the beacons from the “ideal” temperature environment at the MediaLab to a considerably colder and less predictable lecture-hall space adversely impacted their battery life.”
Furthermore, beacons are powered by Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). There are numerous environmental factors that can cause interference with BLE devices: water, certain metals, and other things can cause them to malfunction, interfere with their signals, and render them inoperable.
There are a lot of humans who visit the MET. Humans, at least when not dehydrated, are made of about 60% water. Although limited evidence had been collected, it was observed that human traffic was beginning to interfere with the beacons.
“… having a group of people between the beacon and the BLE smart device may interfere with the broadcasting of the beacon set to an immediate or near regimes. The app may either start showing another beacon set to a far-proximity range or start switching back and forth between beacons in the near regime that are in the area. The effect was more pronounced when testing in the busy area of the Arms and Armor galleries.”
At the end of the study, the MET was able to conclude “a permanent museum-wide solution featuring beacons will probably require a more sophisticated approach.”
The MET implemented beacons in a way that proved to be useful. The beacons were used to create an extension to the visitors environment and museum experience. In the MET example, it was the technology rather than the user experience that was problematic.
Since the MET did their study, there have been many iterations of beacons released by various companies. If the MET were to try another pilot, there are powered beacons that would be a better alternative. ( example: http://www.onyxbeacon.com )
The MET could also work through some of the technical limitations of BLE by mounting the beacons above visitors so that foot traffic would’t interfere with the signal.
You can read more about the physical and technological limitations of beacons in an article published by the Brooklyn Museum ( https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2015/02/04/the-realities-of-installing-ibeacon-to-scale/ )
There are many more examples of how beacons are being used today, and there are a million and one possible ways in which beacons could be used to enhance the world around us. The implementations that are successful are those that are created by a team that can understand the technology, the end user, and the way in which the end user experiences the world around them. The implementations that are successful will be those that extend the world around us in a way that seems natural and is non-disruptive.
At SPARK Experience we craft exceptional experiences that are informed by science. To take a peak inside our User Experience lab visit http://sparkexperience.com/ux-research-lab/