The Mobile Event Possibilities of iBeacons and Beacons

It seems like everyone is talking about iBeacon these days. Since this technology first became available, we have been testing and experimenting with it here at QuickMobile. It’s a very exciting technology built around Bluetooth, which has been around since the 90’s (in fact, location-based services and location aware products aren’t new. Just look at GPS and WiFi Access Points geolocation services from Google a few years ago). So what is it exactly that makes iBeacon so buzz-worthy? And more importantly, what relevance does it have to meeting professionals?

How it works

While “iBeacon” and “beacon” are terms that are used interchangeably, it is important to note that they actually refer to slightly different things. On Apple’s website, it states that “iBeacon is a new technology that extends Location Services in iOS”and this functionality is built into iOS7 or later. It uses Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) signals to identify location.

Apple has trademarked the term iBeacon, but according to Tony Danova, research analyst, BI Intelligence at Business Insider, there are also “third-party manufacturers that have built beacons [that] can send iBeacon messages to Apple devices.”Unlike iBeacon, which is essentially technology that lives in your iOS device, beacons are small hardware units that can be physically placed anywhere., but also use Bluetooth LE.

Bluetooth LE gives both iBeacon’s and beacons a range of approximately 10 meters (or 30 yards). When turned on, both technologies can broadcast a signal, which is detected by “listeners” such as a device’s operating system and mobile apps. Devices listen through a combination of technologies that include Bluetooth hardware and firmware, OS Location Services (iBeacon enhances this capability in iOS7) and a mobile app’s inclusion of a code (an SDK) supplied by the hardware vendors.

Once the listener receives the signal, it can trigger a variety of functionality. For example, if the listener is a mobile app, the beacon might activate a push notification or accumulate points in the mobile game. To be clear, the signal can only be delivered to a device via a listener compatible with beacon technology– content is not streamed via Bluetooth directly to the device. Users also have to manually accept location services on the app and opt-in to receive notifications.

Mobile possibilities and concerns

The types of applications that can be invented, integrated, and deployed to utilize beacon technologies are endless. For mobile event apps, beacons could have the capabilities to enhance features like contact exchange, exhibitor information, maps, line-up information, sponsorship, advertising and promotions, gamification features and scavenger hunts, and geo-fencing and push applications. Corbin Ball has a great list of more ways iBeacons and beacons can be used at events.

A huge advantage to beacons that I foresee, assuming a secure private trust relationship can be established, will be seamless ordering and payment systems. Imagine walking into a venue and a beacon-enabled event app identifies you. It then sends you a notification that you need to pay the registration fee. You can then use the same app to pay for it instantly. I believe that these types of transactions will become more and more prevalent in the very near future.

As with any emerging technology, there are still lots of issues to be worked out. Security, privacy, data reporting and analytics are among them. Security always relies on anticipating the limitations of technology and understanding and assessing the threats and risks. Knowing who, what and how much data is being used is probably more important than the delivery of the data itself.

However, security and privacy are still the biggest concerns with beacons. For example, CES had a hacking issue with their location-based game. Security always relies on anticipating the limitations of technology and understanding and assessing the threats and risks.

Substituting data maliciously by mischievous or distrustful individuals is certainly possible if the technology is not deployed properly. As well, a reliable enterprise-grade Content Management System is required to support this new era of location aware technology.

In addition, we have been experimenting with the interaction between the java software stack and Bluetooth implementation (Bluedroid) on several Android devices (running OS version 4.4.3) in our QuickMobile technology lab and have found a few significant issues (as did Beekn). In some cases, the attempted pairing bond caused a catastrophic failure of the firmware in the device. This failure (essentially turning the smartphone into a “brick” as it is sometimes referred to) requires a hardware factory reset and loss of all local data (contacts, messages, applications, etc) on the Android device. An unsuspecting attendee passing by a beacon at your next event would certainly not appreciate this unintended consequence. It also reveals that there is still a lot to learn about beacon technologies.

One more thing to consider in the short term is the number of devices that are capable of utilizing iBeacon technology. At the moment only Android devices with version 4.3 or higher are equipped to use this technology so you may very well have less than 50% of your attendees able to participate in the features you develop using iBeacon technology for your event – but I’ll talk more about that in my next blog post.

Location-based services have been around for a long time and I am certain there will be more new developments in this area sooner rather than later. iBeacons and beacons appear to have the momentum in their favour for now and we look forward to not only seeing how things unfold, but also contributing to the development of this exciting new wave of technologies.