The speculation was correct. Apple launched its own iBeacon.
But it didn’t come in the form you might have been expecting. Instead, you’ll strap it to your wrist and in so doing, the power of beacons to help make sense of the world around us will have a very personal, tactile and physical connection – right down to our pulse, the steps we take, and the friends we send our heart beats to.
Setting aside the lust-worthy bands or Swiss-level precision of the bevel (check out the “Watch Guy” to learn why), the Apple Watch is clearly more than a beacon. It’s a fusion of industrial design, software and sensors. But for those of us working in the world of beacons it’s a reminder that the power of proximity won’t rest in a one-to-one relationship between dumb and smart devices, but between many smart devices connecting to many other smart devices.
Dumb Beacons, Big Challenges
The challenge for the ‘becosystem’ will be breaking the lock on the mental model which was facilitated by the first wave of proximity beacons.
Companies like Estimote established the standard: they promised that simple, elegantly designed ‘motes’ could be popped onto the wall of your local store and deliver coupons or other messages.
And the uptake of beacons, whether in museums, Tulip gardens or your local coffee shop, was powered in large part by its seeming simplicity. The code you need on an Apple or Android device is relatively simple: a few lines in your software and your app can listen for beacons and, once detected, do “stuff”.
The initial challenge was to figure out what that stuff should be.
This turned out to be harder than most folks imagined: because suddenly, you had to shift from designing for mobile devices to designing for something far more messy and imperfect.
Namely, the physical world.
Push the wrong message at the wrong time and you’re suddenly sending a “Nice to See You” message in the toilets rather than the front door of your restaurant.
Reality is fuzzy, filled with interference, there’s little clarity between the shoe department and accessories even though the ‘zones’ might seem like they’re clearly marked.
Reality wasn’t designed to be digital and yet the promise of digitizing the grocery store was compelling enough to at least try.
What we discovered, however, was that even though beacons are relatively dumb, you need to be reasonably smart about how you deploy, manage and create experiences around them.
Beyond the Dumb Beacon
We’ve called beacons the gateway drug to the Internet of Everything.
On their own, they pose intense design challenges – challenges which, it turns out, can’t always be tackled with the elegance they deserve. And we admit that we went through months of trial and error and testing to even approach getting those challenges right. (Thankfully it’s pretty much all we do, so we had the luxury of focus).
Until now, the use of beacons has mostly focused on treating them solely as ‘dumb’ devices.
Powered by Bluetooth Low Energy (or Bluetooth Smart), beacons are, after all, not much more than radio transmitters that broadcast small packets of data which are picked up by nearby phones or other devices.
But the power of beacons is both a product of the paradigm they represent, and the exponential value they provide when coupled with other technologies.
Bluetooth Smart (BLE) uses a service-based architecture upon which profiles are built. Even excluding technologies such as passive WiFi monitoring, BLE itself has over a dozen ‘profiles’, from proximity (which powers beacons) to heart beat monitoring, time monitoring and “find me”/link loss services.
Add in chips to detect humidity, a gyroscope and an accelerometer and suddenly a simple beacon becomes a tiny powerhouse of data.
The Tempo is still one of our favorite devices. In spite all the beacons we’ve seen and tested, these little ‘stones’ still have the best app-side user interface, the best design, and give Apple a run for its money in terms of form and function.
And they’ve recently added iBeacon support. Richard Hancock, CEO of Blue Maestro, tells me that “Through the app, users can turn on iBeacon mode and it will act as both an environment monitor and an iBeacon at the same time by intertwining broadcasts.”
“Tempo is particularly suited to use cases where iBeacon functionality and environmental monitoring is important, such as in museums, historic tourist attractions, transportation networks and stadiums.” He explains that “as iBeacon functionality is expanded by Apple (and Android), we will have the potential to do neat things with Tempo, such as automatically determine whether the environmental data has been harvested and, if not, trigger the download from the device, without having to involve a user.”
The device isn’t just beautiful to hold. The app isn’t just a rock solid interface which, you know, actually works. (I can’t tell you how many times we scream in frustration at the beacon companies whose apps time out when trying to pair so that you can recalibrate the settings).
Instead, Blue Maestro reminds us that “beacons” are already more than just proximity – they’re turning into incredibly powerful, multi-sensing machines.
The Smarter Cloud
Coupled with smarter devices is the smarter cloud.
Kontakt, for example, has launched its Cloud Beacon. Its power doesn’t rest, however, in the fact that it’s WiFi enabled. Its power rests in the simplicity with which it lets you manage fleets of beacons and harvest anonymized data.
Kontakt, whose sole focus is beacons, brings its not insubstantial expertise to the task of extending a simple beacon into a full network that combines WiFi with cloud-based control.
But from another angle, companies like Salesforce.com, propose extending existing ‘smart infrastructure’ in order to extend it to beacons:
Why The Apple Watch Reminds Us of the REAL Future
But these developments pale in comparison to the real power of beacons.
We’ve long proposed that beacons represent the first in a paradigm-change for computing:
- Proximity is different from location. Whether through beacons, Google’s Project Tango, or increasingly refined ambient signal detection, we’ve entered an era in which we can know what we’re close to, whether a stationary shelf or a moving vehicle.
- Because our devices can now ‘see’ what they’re close to, the physical world itself is becoming a digital interface. This blurring of the digital with the physical means that there will soon be no offline.
And if our phones can ‘see’, and if our devices are also beacons (which is the case with Android-L capable phones and Apple devices) then it means we can also see….each other. And our devices can start to talk. And if our devices can start to talk, they can also start to do so without us even necessarily participating in the exhange.
Google Now gets us where we need to go. Our Apple Watch will gently tap us on the wrist if we’re driving in the right direction.
These ambient cues may still connect us to our devices and make us aware that they’re working on our behalf, but over time they’ll be more ambient and calm than pushy and forthright.
Objects will glow. Digital signage will subtly change. The change room in your local store will switch its lighting to show how your outfit looks in the actual light that you typically find yourself in.
And your watch.
Your watch is the new skeumorphic. Mostly familiar, mostly simple looking, it even tells the time and has a crown.
But as a beacon, it takes sensors, broadcasting and connection to a new level.
Your pulse is a text message. A gentle tap on your wrist is an interaction with another beacon.
Your watch won’t just be a connection to dumb devices planted in the world around you. For better or worse, your watch turns your physical body into a digital interface.
Mesh networks, continuity between devices, objects talking to each other, and our very pulse are creating a new canvas upon which digital interactions will be deployed.
We’ve said that with beacons, we’re inviting engagement with the physical world through the most personal object most of us own (our phone).
But Apple Watch and other wearables are extending this metaphor into even more personal spaces, into even more personal realms of data and connection, and are part of a network of nodes which is larger than we can conceivably imagine.
So, What’s Your Channel?
We spend a lot of time thinking about beacons. Trying to figure out how to deploy 10s and 100s of thousands of beacons keeps us awake at night worrying about signal interference and sun spots. (OK, well, we DO have our moments of random terror I suppose).
But what’s more challenging, and we think more interesting, is what it means for the user to be walking through an array of beacons that cover entire towns.
A visit to the grocery store can be a utility or it can be a cultural exploration. A wander down Main Street can be a chance to browse and window shop or it can be a chance to connect to community. A digital billboard can be an ad, or it can be the start of a story, an aspiration or an adventure.
The Internet gave us access to a universe of stories. Social media connected those tales to others. Beacons connected them to the physical world. And wearables bring them back to the domain with which we still have our most visceral and emotional connections: the physical world, our selves.
Apple and Samsung and Nike have invited themselves onto the most personal real estate there is. But it’s the connection of these devices to the world around us that creates the truly profound change – and gives both the ability for data to be harvested and experiences to be driven, pushed and personalized; and for us to understand these connections as a new art form, a new network of pulsing, ambient and personal power.
The motto of this site is Be The Beacon.
Now, more than ever, we are.
Toronto Dsrupted – Join Me!
I’ll be presenting this week at the Dsrupted Conference in Toronto. If you’re interested in beacons, digital signage and the next generation of ‘screens’ and devices you should join us.
Share Your Thoughts
Thoughts on wearables? Comments on Apple Watch? Drop them in the comments below.
And a side note: if you’ve commented before your contribution should immediately appear. But I’ve turned moderation back on because the darn Akismet spam filter just doesn’t seem up to the task. So, apologies in advance if it takes me a bit of time to approve your comment.