iBeacons: Why Form Factors Matter

Estimote beacons: it's turtles all the way down
Estimote beacons: it’s turtles all the way down

It’s a brave new world of beacons, a place in which the world will be talking to your phone rather than the other way around.

And as you get used to the idea that a lamp post or a store shelf or the equipment at the local gym is sending silent pings to your mobile device, tiny beacons will be the homing devices helping to keep track of it all.

It’s early days…and because it’s early days, the appearance of those beacons matter. Their form factors aren’t just design choices or aesthetics, they’re signals of a new web of connections…and how they look will, at first, go a long way to establishing their place in our culture before they fade entirely and become mostly invisible in the world around us.

Why Beacons Matter
When Apple announced support for Bluetooth LE through its iBeacon API, it meant we finally had a wireless communication protocol supported by all the major mobile devices.

Some called it a potential NFC-killer and I agree. The barrier to NFC, aside from Apple’s refusal to adopt it, was that the N stands for Near….and the idea that we need to bump our phones together to share data always felt a little silly.

iBeacon technology is based on Bluetooth LE – a low energy version of standard Bluetooth that was designed to primarily transmit very very small bits of data. By facilitating these small data exchanges, it can help your phone to ‘locate itself’ in a physical space and figure out whether you’re standing at a store entrance or in front of the chip aisle in the grocery store.

It’s a bit simplistic, but previously you had to rely on triangulated WiFi (accurate but expensive) or GPS (inaccurate, especially indoors) to figure out your location.

When it came time to transact – to pay for the bag of chips or to grab a digital coupon, you needed to scan a QR Code, tap your phone using NFC at close range, or conduct one of a half dozen other work-arounds. Bluetooth LE changes that: it lets you set up a secure handshake with a mobile device and, theoretically, pay for a can of pop without even walking up to the register.

Beacons: Commodity or Luxury Good?
So with a wave of Bluetooth LE and iBeacon technologies on their way, there’s been a rush to create the beacons themselves.

Not that you need to buy a commercial version – there are hardware kits at your disposal. A recently announced kit by COIN will hit mailboxes in December and comes in at an affordable $22 for a single device that combines an Arduino board with a Bluetooth LE module.

But for those of us who aren’t too handy with a soldering iron and have no idea what ‘sudo’ means, there’s a growing list of commercial options, most of which are already shipping and most of them come in at a similar price point – from $10 a month to $100 for a kit of three.

It might sound like commodity pricing, and maybe it is: but with billions of these devices expected to be sold in the coming years, it’s the kind of commodity I wouldn’t mind trading in myself!

The key, of course, isn’t just the device itself, its the services, the code, and the apps around it that bring it value. A beacon, after all, is just a tiny little battery-powered transmitter that sends out tiny data packets into the world around it where your phone picks up the signal, wakes up and then starts communicating through your normal cell phone or WiFi network.

The secure connection to the beacon helps take care of knowing who and where you are but its the ecosystem of apps and cloud-based services where the true user experience lives: the beacons just helped to get that experience started.

So If Beacons Are Just Little Transmitters, Why Does Form Factor Matter?
When you go to your local coffee shop and access their WiFi it’s unlikely that you look around to figure out which box the signal is coming from. iBeacons will be the same – your phone will ‘wake up’ and offer you a coupon or a deal, welcome you to a store or remind you that you tried on a pair of jeans the last time you visited and offer you a second fitting.

We’ll get used to the idea that the world is talking to our phones, just like if you use NikeFuel you’re used to the idea that your shoes can talk to a dashboard.

But it’s still early days, and until we become accustomed to a world of sensors and transmitters there’s some hurdles to overcome:

Beacons need a unique form factor to help, well, signal that they’re different from other communication devices.
Explaining beacons is harder than it seems.

I’ve been talking up beacons for a while now. And although it’s a simple enough concept it’s actually strangely difficult to explain how something so simple is fairly revolutionary.

We jump to mental models that we’re used to. In this case, what we’re used to, mostly, is WiFi. But beacons don’t facilitate rich data exchange – they’re merely triggers. They send a signal to your phone which triggers it to find its exact location in the physical world, and based on that any series of ‘events’ can happen – a push message through your lock screen, a special deal on your app. But those events happen independent of the beacon itself, which simply got the process started.

Beacons need to signal their (usually) benign intent
Depending how old you are, how tech-friendly, or what your feelings are about privacy and data, the idea of sensors tracking you or sending information to your very personal phone will either scare you or have you drooling for more.

It’s amazing to me how wide the range of responses have been when I’ve been talking about beacons. It’s a bit stereotypical, maybe, but in general if you’re younger it all makes perfect sense: getting information based on your location seems more like a service. You don’t mind that your friends can find out where you’re having coffee through Facebook, and you delight in the idea that if there’s a special on at the local butcher that your phone will ping you with a message.

For the rest of us, we still share a concern about who and what is watching us.

But one of the powers of beacons is that they’re mostly constructed to be opt-in. Major retailers might be surreptitiously tracking you through their store by picking up your phone’s Bluetooth signal (if you have it on), but beacons promise us that all they’re doing is transmitting and that the only collecting they do is if you’ve opted in to that collection.

Their form factor is important, because in most cases it should be visible and it should look different enough that the employee in a shoe store can credibly say: “it’s just a little transmitter and it only has the ability to send out little bits of data to people who have opted in to receive that data”.

Beacons need to signal delight
Beacons are transformative, just as the Internet of Things is transformative. For now, the use cases are mostly rehashes of old (and fairly tired) ways of thinking: coupons and loyalty points and special offers.

But beacons will become nodes in a universal story engine. They’ll help to facilitate a mesh of community and connection based on where we are in the world, our intent, our destination and our goals.

At their very best, beacons will be the touchpoint to experiences that delight. Their form factor matters, because even though they will become mostly unnoticed actors in our digital life, we need to meet them first: and our first meetings should give us a sense of their potential to delight, to facilitate stories and shared experiences.

There's a turtle on your wall!
Estimote beacons for retail

Turtles All the Way Down
I’m a huge fan of Estimote beacons. No, I’m not paid to say that – and to be honest, at first glance I thought they looked like weird shaped plastic turtles. Or some kind of carrying case for cosmetics maybe.

But the more I thought about my goals in using beacons, and the more I parsed the importance of their form factor, the more they grew on me. I love the fact that they’re not invisible because they remove the idea that we’re trying to be surreptitious. I love the fact that they don’t look like other devices.

Roximity: Apple Inspired
Roximity: Apple Inspired

Compare them to Roximity devices, which have clearly referenced Apple devices, in particular AirPorts.

Estimotes give the best of all worlds: unique, non-threatening, and different enough that it helps reinforce the idea that they’re NOT LIKE other devices, or scanners or WiFi networks.

They open a conversation, maybe, and while they might look like turtles they’re also discrete and small enough that they’re more likely to be mistaken for, well, an air freshener than the radical new wave of mobile communication.

Becoming Invisible
Your phone itself is a beacon and you probably don’t even realize it. Eventually, we will ALL become nodes on the network.

And the truth is that beacons will become invisible and very quickly. They’ll be integrated into other machines – added into WiFi modules or embedded in your cash register.

They will also become incredibly small. Just look at how tiny an Arduino board is becoming and you’ll immediately see what I mean:

Tiny tiny arduino
Tiny tiny arduino

But until then, there’s some cultural adoption and adaptation that needs to happen. And until the day that beacons become fully invisible, their form factors matter, because for many of us they will be our first handshake with the Internet of Things.

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