SXSW: Beacons for good - avoiding the creepy

Daniel Whitmarsh, The White Agency
By Daniel Whitmarsh, The White Agency | 20 March 2015

In my opinion one of the best tech sessions at SXSW was on iBeacons. The session focused on Beacons for good – avoiding the creepy. Beacon is a buzzword that more and more people are starting to use and I would question if all of them know what exactly they are and what they’re capable of.
An example of where a beacon is useful could be when you go to the supermarket and your favourite product has been moved. A supermarket app could then tell you where the product is using beacon technology. The dark side of a beacon is that the supermarkets now know exactly where you are in the store, which a lot of people might find intrusive. Therefore, there needs to be a trade-off between usefulness and the data you as a user are giving up.
In simple terms the way a beacon works is just like a radio station that plays the same song over and over again. Each beacons needs a receiver – app. For a developer this is huge as it makes connecting digital to physical possible. The most important data a beacon broadcasts is a Proximity UUID – (The White Agency – i.e. company), a Major (Melbourne – i.e. location of store) and a Minor (design team - type). The app then knows what’s it’s interacting with, in this case the Melbourne design team.
Developers need to consider privacy implications for users interacting with the app. It’s therefore vital to be transparent about what is being done with the data they are receiving. The developer needs to remember that the user is in control and if a user doesn’t feel comfortable they will just remove the app.
An interesting point was that the best beacon implementations don’t have adverts and every implementation must have a value exchange. The ice-cream theory was discussed and this means that you can get any data from anyone if you give them the right ‘ice-cream’ (i.e. what they want). It has to be clear cut for consumers.

By 2019 it’s theorised that there will be about 60 million beacons in use. One of the major reasons this has grown is that phones developed in last two years all support this technology. For years Amazon has been tailoring the online shopping experience, whereever you visit its site the suggestions you see will be based on data from previous visits. Physical shops in the US are now also doing this via data collected by in-store beacons. This data is now becoming important in shaping the physical store layout.

Beacons are also being installed in cars, for example into tyres to monitor air pressure. They are being used by airports to help you get through queues and into sports arenas to help you find seats. Some major sports teams are actually using beacon technology to push notifications to people that better seats are available when they are at a game for a small cost. This is win-win for both the sports lover, who gets better seats at a discounted price, and the sport corporation who are able to make money on seats that would otherwise be empty.

It’s clear that this low cost emerging technology will be around for a while. When implementing though, ensuring value exchange for the customer needs to be a priority.

Daniel Whitmarsh

Head of technology

The White Agency

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