Bluetooth beacons can enhance experiences in a way that is truly indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke once stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” something that holds true when it comes to our ever-connected world. Take a look around and you will surely notice that the Internet of Things phenomenon is growing quite rapidly. So much so that some adopters have become a part of the IoT without even knowing. Many times, these cloud-based data processing solutions appear to the user as only a familiar webpage or mobile application.
Part of making IoT ubiquitous and nearly magical is awareness of where you are. GPS and cellular location can certainly do a great job outdoors. Cell tower-based location can give a very rough prediction of location indoors or outdoors. Using GPS or tower location, it is likely that an application running on a mobile device would know that you just walked into a particular store or venue.
But what happens if you need to know a more precise location inside? Take for instance, retailers and venues, who want to deliver very specific content based on the exact location of a customer, like a promotion for a particular product on a nearby shelf.
Today, many museums and public venues, such as malls and arenas, have strategically employed QR code barcodes to allow for on-demand access to location-specific information. Patrons can scan the code and automatically launch cloud-based content into an app or browser that is related to particular exhibits and locations. As great as it may be, I have come to realize that it is a real pain because it requires scanning the QR code at every exhibit. For me, this involves entering my PIN to unlock my cellphone, then looking for my QR code scanner app. This takes my attention away from my family and the overall museum experience. Usually by the time I have accessed the information, my family has moved on to the next exhibit without me.
I recently visited the North Carolina Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. It is a nice aquarium with thousands of examples of aquatic life from North Carolina’s many inland freshwater bodies, as well as the sea in smaller exhibits cumulating in the large 300,000-gallon tank holding a replica of the German U-352 that was sunken off the coast of North Carolina during WWII. What’s more, there is a 50,000-gallon installation that re-creates the scene as divers discovered the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a ship once commanded by the most infamous pirate of them all – Blackbeard. The ship was last seen sinking off the North Carolina coast in 1718. Case in point: as with most exhibits, there are stories to be told that are specific to each one. Getting easy access to those stories easily enhances the overall visitor experience.
I had noticed that several of the smaller exhibits at the North Carolina Aquarium featured interactive electronic experiences that weren’t working because they had fallen into disrepair. A prime example was the amphibian exhibit, which you can press an old-fashioned button and hear what a frog call sounds like.
I can imagine the electronics behind this antiquated pushbutton: probably a voice recorder circuit from the 1990s along with a power supply and speaker. The button most likely stopped working after a few thousand kids pressed it dozens of times each, or the contacts became oxidized and non-conducting because the current through the switch was insufficient to keep the oxidation burned off. Design of switch circuits is another topic and one that hopefully will need to be addressed much less going forward thanks to innovations like capacitive touch for buttons, sliders, wheels, and other user interface elements.
In this case, the old-school pushbutton that doesn’t work is far from advanced, let alone “indistinguishable from magic.” And for that matter, the QR codes strategically placed at exhibits are clunky as well.
Instead, what if there were little radio transmitters at each exhibit that your mobile device could detect and reliably determine location? As you are well aware, your mobile device comes equipped with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, as well as GPS, cellular and NFC. Of these technologies, we can use Bluetooth to interact with the exhibits by letting the phone seamlessly know where in the building it is located. Introducing self-contained Bluetooth Smart Beacons or iBeacons as a solution to this problem should not be difficult.
These beacons consist of a power source, a Bluetooth Smart radio and an antenna, all housed inside an enclosure. Beacons work by sending out a packet of data at regular intervals, called the advertising interval. In a museum or aquarium where people walk around, the advertising interval could be one second or more. With an advertising interval of a second, a Bluetooth Smart beacon using Atmel’s BTLC1000 SoC can operate at an average current of under 7 µA and last up to four years on a low-cost CR2032 Lithium coin-cell or longer on a pair of AAA batteries. And the best part is that there are no moving parts — nothing to be loaded onto the beacon except a unique ID or serial number associated with the specific location in the museum or other venue. And the technology is real today. In fact, beacons from Apple (known as iBeacons) are already being deployed in select retail locations such as Disney stores and throughout their own Apple stores. Some iBeacons apps simply run on iPhones and iPads, while others use dedicated low-power and low-cost hardware.
Let’s consider the entire system and the lifecycle cost of a location-based system of beacons and a smartphone application versus individual content loaded at particular exhibit locations. In this scenario, the largest upfront cost of the solution will be that of developing the website and/or the app. The price of the beacons will be negligible by comparison.
Deployment of the beacons can be accomplished using a different app that can register each beacon to a location and associate it with specific content. Once deployed, the beacons need not be reprogrammed or upgraded. Their ID is simply linked to content located on a server, which can be updated whenever necessary.
Another nice feature of this system is that trained employees are accustomed to loading content onto web servers. There are very few people who are adept at re-recording audio files onto a 20-year-old talking box or repairing it’s worn out pushbutton. Deployment of the app would be done through the app stores for Google, Apple and other phone OS suppliers. Maybe you could even get started by scanning a single QR code when you enter the venue. But that would be the last of the dreaded QR codes you would need to scan.
Using Bluetooth beacons, an experience such as the North Carolina Aquarium could actually be enhanced by technology in a way that is truly indistinguishable from magic. Some other applications, many of them not new, that I think could benefit from this technology include:
- Sports like skating, motorsports, and swimming/diving: to enhance safety and enjoyment.
- Retail stores: to provide special discounts and on-the-spot information.
- Car dealerships: to offer information to those driving by.
- Amusement parks: to advise patrons about waiting times or to help staff manage crowd traffic.
- Art galleries: to improve spectators’ experiences without taking anything visual away from the exhibits by cluttering the gallery with QR codes.
- In the dining room: Based on being near a beacon, the entire family’s devices can go into a silent “family time” mode that would turn off ringers and even disable texting. Similarly, restaurants, churches, funeral homes, conference rooms and other settings could implement an automatic cellphone quiet zone for those who didn’t want to forget to turn off their ringers.
- At home or in the car: to customize the operation of a phone or tablet in specific ways based on a person’s preferences.
- Public buildings or on streets: to ease wayfinding for the visually-impaired.
- Senior centers: to help the elderly or those with disabilities regain independence by pairing with a wearable device.
Coincidentally, I saw this on the way home the other day. While I still don’t know any details, the concept of using beacons got me thinking.
What are the chances that some will pull my car over, get out, and scan the QR code on this outdoor sign? If like me, probably slim to none. The same goes for those who are looking to buy real estate and are driving in their vehicles. What good is the QR code to you in this situation?
Unless I’m walking or want to go through the trouble of getting out of my vehicle to scan the sign, or worse yet try and scan the sign while driving, I probably won’t utilize the attached QR code. Using beacons will not only eliminate risks, but will expedite the process altogether. What if we enable the real estate apps with access to the mobile device’s Bluetooth? Now we can look for Bluetooth beacons placed strategically at properties that are for sale and collect information about properties without getting out of the vehicle, and even more importantly, without taking our eyes off the road.
There is enormous potential for the use of Bluetooth Smart beacons anywhere signs are posted and wherever further information is available online. The real estate market is just one of many example use cases, where the implementation of beacons could be a key differentiator for companies willing to become early adopters.
You do have to focus on the revenue generating applications, but there are countless other applications where QR codes located on larger signs could be replaced by beacons to make it easier to access information and reduce the total size and number of signs.
One example is this QR code-equipped sign to encourage people to walk instead of driving their cars…
Or this one that provides fitness information to those taking a stroll along the public greenway trail…
These are just a few the ways that Bluetooth beacons can help make the world a better place. A new thinking in terms of apps and getting people to install them is necessary for success. However, if the value of the information becomes high enough, it will happen. Hopefully you will think of more applications and ways to design Bluetooth Smart beacons to support them. And when you do, be sure to look at the lowest power and lowest total bill-of-material cost solutions from Atmel.