On Friday, Apple switched on iBeacons across all 254 of its U.S. retail stores. iBeacon support, which is built into iOS 7, uses Bluetooth LE -- which limits the technology to the iPhone 4S and newer devices -- along with Wi-Fi and push notifications to deliver information to a user's iOS device when they are within range of an iBeacon device. That device can be a dedicated piece of hardware or it can be an iOS device running an iBeacon app; Apple is reportedly using a combination of the two in its stores. The launch doesn't seem to have been completely smooth, according to reports in Macworld and elsewhere, but Apple will almost certainly improve and expand the system going forward.
The move appears to serve two purposes for Apple: To provide context-sensitive marketing and messaging to shoppers, and to demonstrate the technology in the hopes of getting other retailers and developers onboard with iBeacons.
The company certainly achieved part of that second goal as iBeacons became powerful news item over the weekend, with reports in both tech and mainstream news about how iBeacons could revolutionize retail by delivering users information about the products that they are browsing, ads for additional and potentially competing products, targeted deals, or specials. The technology could be the basis of a new mobile payment system.
Although Apple is using its stores as a powerful demonstration of iBeacons, the technology actually has a lot of potential outside the confines of retail. Here's a handful of other possible uses.
- Museums and exhibits -- Museums, zoos, aquariums, exhibitions, and even gallery showings provide a basic amount of information about items that you're seeing. You can get more information from a guided tour or an audio tour that you listen to as you walk a pre-determined path through the space. iBeacons stationed at each item could offer additional information and content provided, but in a way that still allows you to take your own path through the space or linger at a specific work or display. Paired with an iPhone or iPad, the iBeacon content could be peppered with curated links to websites, apps, discussion forums, and so on.
- Hospitals -- A few months ago I wrote about the types of mobile apps (or mobile sites) that hospitals really should provide patients and their families. Maps and navigation was one of the top items on that list. iBeacons could offer an effective option here. Simply station them in each hospital unit and provide a map of that unit (or more sophisticated navigation) so users can see how to navigate it. Pair that with more general maps and guides of each floor near elevators and entrances. Each unit could also broadcast information and guidance to patients or visitors -- concerns and guidelines when visiting an intensive care unit, expected wait times or online registration forms in the emergency room. Going even further, iBeacons could be built into individual rooms with information and important notices -- an extension of the iPad patient information boards in use at Nemours Children's Hospital.
- Conferences -- Go to almost any conference and you receive a map and schedule of events and sessions and often a mobile app with that information and other features like event-specific social media tools. Adding iBeacon support could make those apps much easier to use and provide additional resources. Conference centers could offer their own app and building iBeacons into their spaces that could alert users to information about each event that takes place, and even link to an app developed by the organization managing the conference.
- Conference rooms -- Thinking slightly smaller, a company could install an iBeacon in each conference or training room that broadcasts the room's schedule, resources, meetings in progress, and a link to a tool or email account to book the room. During meetings or presentations, the iBeacon could broadcast additional resources like websites where attendees can get additional information rather than trying to making them scribble URLs included in a PowerPoint.
- Restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, and bars -- The obvious advantage here is to offer a virtual menu with more details about specific items -- calorie counts, local farms where produce was sourced from, and suggested food and wine pairings. Going further, iBeacons could alert you to other local businesses, provide information or history about the place, or even allow you to quickly see what catering options are available for your next party.
- Hotels and resorts -- The hospitality industry, like retail or museums, is a perfect fit with technologies like iBeacons and could provide a virtual concierge accessible from anywhere on the property, offer expedited and frictionless check-in and check-out, deliver information on amenities, and help vacationers explore the points of interest within a resort as well as around it.
- Renting and sharing -- Much as Apple is touting iBeacons for in-store pickups, the same advantages can easily apply to getting you into your reserved car at the airport. An iBeacon could eve broadcast the available inventory in a given office or car sharing venue (such as Zipcar), allowing you to make your selection almost instantly.
- Rallies -- Seeking change or showing support for a candidate or proposal is the function of rallies and protests, but achieving that often requires getting attendees involved in the cause and having them take further action like sharing information on social networks, letter writing, and fundraising. iBeacons could broadcast that information more easily that shouting a website address to a crowd and ensure that a carefully crafted message is delivered to attendees and thus to the officials they may be asked to contact.
- Helping those with visual impairments -- Apple provides iOS technologies to help the visually impaired navigate their devices and the world around them including text-to-speech capabilities, dictation technology built into Siri, and support for Bluetooth Braille displays. iBeacon setups could tap into these technologies to provide specific information about a space or venue useful to the visually impaired.
- Schools and colleges -- iBeacons could provide navigation aids on large campuses, deliver policies and information to visitors and family members, display the cafeteria menu each day, and allow teachers and guidance counselors to broadcast information related to their classes or services.
Configuring almost anything away from home -- There are many times that we need to configure something at a public venue -- a connection to a wireless presentation system in a training center or conference venue, access to a wireless printer in a hotel's business center, or almost anything else when we're on the road. An iBeacon could provide the information in a more robust way than on a sheet of paper while saving us the time and effort of tracking down someone to get that information.