Imagine the next time you step inside your favorite big box store and your shopping list is transformed into a personalized map, showing you the deals and products that’ll appeal to you most. Or better yet, you have been a loyal customer for years and that big screen TV you have been staring at for several minutes suddenly drops in price dynamically reduced just for you - right in front of your eyes. All of this enabled by Bluetooth you say? Sounds odd doesn't it, I mean Bluetooth has been around forever - we use it for handsfree talking on our phones while driving and for streaming our music to the stereo. Are we talking about the same Bluetooth? Well actually not quite, this isn’t the battery-draining, why-won’t-it-stay-paired Bluetooth you are use to. Today we have Bluetooth LE - the LE stands for Low Energy and it’s quickly becoming a big deal.
Bluetooth LE was actually first introduced in 2006, but has quickly been gaining momentum now that Apple and Google are pretty serious about it. Apple's iBeacon introduced in iOS7 lets developers harness the latest Bluetooth LE technology in their apps and we are beginning to see it in action at Apple's retail stores as well as real world pilots by Macy's and Major League Baseball. Although Google still pushes NFC they are starting to see that Bluetooth LE has some significant advantages over it and has baked it into Android 4.3. One advantage is that the technology can pinpoint you–indoors or out–with an astonishing degree of accuracy. Multiple beacons can triangulate your position at distances anywhere from 100 feet down to just a few inches. The beacons themselves are relatively inexpensive and run off a watch battery that can last for two years making in attractive and painless for retailers or venues to install. It also supports “enter” and “exit” events, so it can send different notifications while entering into the range and exiting out of the range. Google and Apple are not the only major mobile manufacturers that are interested, Nokia recently announced that it will be rolling out an update to all of it's Windows Phone 8 devices to enable Bluetooth LE.
What this is really about is connecting you to digital content. This is not a new concept, we have tried this in the past. Remember those QR codes that were plastered all over the place. That was also about connecting you to digital content. Well that has never really taken off, way too much effort, I guess, for someone to take their phones out, figure out which app to load and hold it in front of the sign in hopes it brings you to a meaningful web page. Then you are left standing there figuring out what next to do. Although Bluetooth LE still requires you to have an app installed it is much more passive in nature.The protocol is designed so that all the triangulating happens constantly and quietly in the background. When you pull out your phone, the right content is there waiting for you or notifications will only appear after certain if-then-else conditions happen like standing in front of the display for several minutes. This personalized service is one big advantage Bluetooth now has over clunky predecessors like NFC and QR codes.
Most of the examples that are used to demonstrate the power of BLE and iBeacons focus on advertising and commerce. However, with the inexpensive cost of a beacon, there are other areas that iBeacons and BLE could be used in to make our lives easier. For example, what if you placed a beacon on things you always seem to lose like car keys, remotes, bags, etc. They do cost a reasonable amount (about $20 for this type of tag), but could end up saving you more. Home automation is another area that is ideal for BLE since we all seem to carry our phones with us from room to room. Imagine lights going on or off when you are certain distance away or your phone alerting you that you left the oven on. Another scenario may be a simple app running on an iPad docked in your kitchen, acting as a beacon and personal concierge service. You walk into the room and it knows it is you and serves up your personalized content and automatically plays back messages left from your spouse or kids (all while you get your cup of coffee).
It's Always About the App
These BLE beacons and sensors are bound to quickly get smaller, cheaper and be more prolific in our daily lives. At the end of the day the acceptance of these will be driven by the usefulness of the applications that are behind them. And of course developers will have to deal with issues like privacy and retailers will have to resist the urge to bombard us with new hyper-localized notifications with our every step. However there is great potential behind Bluetooth LE and iBeacon like devices. It represents a chance to show off how intelligent your apps can really be.
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