Getting The Record Straight With (i)Beacons
Every time I try to explain the world of beacons to someone, it always ends up with iBeacons. You would think that iBeacons and beacons are the same because of the root word beacon. However, that is not the case. With today’s technology growing exponentially, buzzwords tend to multiply like rabbits and keeping up with all the new terms can be difficult.
iBeacon is not a physical product that you can hold. It’s a platform that Apple has developed and trademarked, as one of the early adapters of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and released it along with iOS7 and the iBeacon API.
BLE "beacons" on the other hand are the devices that are strategically placed around an area, such as a museum or a store. They may be hidden from plain sight but still deliver an optimum user experience. These devices broadcast a small "advertisement" packet, a few times per second, for the mobile device to pick up and execute a certain command or action.
I Got 99 Problems and an App Ain’t One
One of the flaws of the iBeacon platform is that it requires an app for both the beacon and the mobile device to fully work properly so the user must download the app even if they only use it once. I personally had trouble downloading the app that I needed, and that was just trying it out for fun. This is just one of the hurdles that one must consider when developing apps and beacons.
Enter: The Physical Web + Beacons
Google has its own open source BLE beacon platform called the EddyStone URL. The beacon broadcasts plain URLs for local smartphones to pick up, which the user taps and is opened in their browser, they don’t need to download an app. Does it feel like it’s too simple and seems like there is no difference? There is a difference, when you look at the bigger picture.
"It's the experience!"
The main difference and selling point of BLE beacons is about with distribution and connecting to the target audience. Following are the most common ways beacons can be used and the pros and cons.
Probably the most common and popular way of distributing URLs to the user without making them type. However, it requires an app for the smartphone to be able to read the code and not everyone has a QR code reader installed (at the time of writing). I found myself frustrated when trying to discover where the QR code will take me and I didn’t have the app installed. It happened also the other way around, I had the QR code reader installed and no codes to scan.
This was the predecessor of QR codes and was supposed to be the next big thing. Unfortunately, most of the smartphones have it disabled by default and others might have difficulties enabling them specially if they don’t use it that much or didn’t know that the feature existed. What’s worst, Apple devices doesn’t have NFC (yet!).
Generally, humans are too lazy or clumsy to type on mobile devices, what more if you force the users to either type a long URL or a URL that has a mixture of lowercase and uppercase letters and numbers. I find myself fumbling on the virtual keyboard trying to type https://goo.gl/HP6Rpo (for example).
App Notification Bombardment
It may be useful to be notified by a beacon from time to time or when you are interested. But it can be irritating if you receive notifications when you don’t need to be notified.
Enter the Physical Web
When I first watched the keynote presentation on "beacons" at the in Google IO event and saw the live demo, I couldn’t believe that it was that simple and the variety of applications that it can be applied to. The UX practitioners at Google coined the phrase, "Walk up and use anything" to make the experience better between offline and online. It is as simple as having Google Chrome installed, location and Bluetooth enabled and of course an internet connection. A simple swipe down on the notification drawer will display the low-priority notification if a beacon is nearby. A low-priority notification is a type of notification that you will only see it when you need it. It is not like an ordinary App notification where you can get bombarded with pings and alerts.
Though the "Physical Web" and BLE "beacons" are still in its infancy, there are a lot of basic applications that it can be used on, such as museums, shops, bus stops or just places where there is a requirement for on-demand information. Here are a few real-world examples where beacons and the physical web can be implemented.
People get their bus schedule either through an app, send an SMS or at the schedule posted at the stop. Sometimes, they do not have the app installed, or they need to make a time-sensitive decision, or timetables are confusing and it’s not real-time. If there was a beacon installed, a tap on the notification will bring out the real-time listing of available bus schedules immediately.
Museums / Historical Landmarks
Museums and historical landmarks can take the users to a whole new world with physical web and virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). A marker on the landmark can tell the users how to get to the microsite immediately without downloading any app. They take a peek through time and history just by using their mobile phones. There is a lot of potential and areas that can be explored with beacons tied up with VR/AR.
Getting the audience to participate on digital engagements at events is quite tricky. In the past, we’ve projected an online game on the wall and gave out pieces of paper with the URL, this wasn’t ideal but it was the easiest way to get the audience to participate. If beacons were available at that time, it would serve as an easy entry point to engage users in the digital space.
More and more people are using smartphones when they search the internet. We need to think of creative ways of connecting our users easily from their mobile devices to the digital space easily. Mobile websites and web apps are becoming more app-like with the advent of progressive web apps (stay tuned for the next article). AR and VR have arrived in the mobile browser as well. With most of the people now using their mobile phones to connect in the internet, it is time to strike while the iron is hot.