Beacon technology illuminating the path to the future

13 Jun 2017 |

With Jamie Skella: Futurist, explorer and global thinker

The smartphone and the connectivity afforded us by the internet have had an inestimable impact on our lives and continue to do so. Now with new technology like beacons and the evolution of smart-cities we are becoming more connected than ever, both locally and internationally.

This means businesses who think on a global scale will have the competitive edge in the future. Futurist and entrepreneur Jamie Skella spoke with Biz Better Together ahead of presenting at the Mobile-ising Women in Business conference on 29 August 2017 in Melbourne.

What is beacon technology?

Beacon technology uses Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technology. Smartphone apps can interact with beacons and allow the identification of the geographical location of people, independently of GPS signal, and can deliver specific content to mobile devices – among many other use cases.

In essence, beacons are simple low energy radio transmitters. The beacon will push out its unique identifier on a particular frequency, and mobile devices in the vicinity that have been told to look for the frequency will pick it up.

When people think of beacons, it’s probably about the use of them that’s been rejected by most consumers, being a way for stores to push invasive messages to your phone while you’re walking through the mall.

It was one of the first uses of this technology, a short-sighted one, but there are now some much more meaningful and creative ways to use it.

Proximity-based marketing is just the beginning…

What we’re talking about in respect to the technology I’ve created in this space is a new kind of targeted advertising. When you open an app that can interact with this technology it will look for a beacon, which is typically behind a digital screen. When the app finds a beacon it will then connect with a database. Through this link, the technology can recognise what beacon – and thus what screen – you are closest to, so it can serve up relevant content to either screen.

This is a significant leap forward in proximity-based marketing. It doesn’t push information to you that you aren’t interested in; it’s tailored based on what you have already seen and responded to, by opening up an app.

You don’t need to scan a QR (Quick Response) code or tap an NFC (Near Field Communication) sticker; it’s almost like magic. Say you’ve seen a jacket for sale on one of these screens, you can open up one of these applications and you will be able to buy the jacket right now or save the details for later. When you walk past a store in the mall that sells the jacket, you can be sent a message or special offer or something similar, because you’ve opted in and effectively said “OK, I want a relationship with this brand, and you are welcome to send me messages that relate to it.”

In some ways this technology is here a bit early. Some businesses aren’t quite ready to capitalise on it. It also raises questions about things like ownership, storage and usage of data and the right to privacy.

Retail is coming along much faster in this area, perhaps because the benefits and possible uses are more easily understood.

Advertising is just one use of beacons technology

Beacons can be used for so many different things beyond advertising. It’s about next generation environment interaction and engagement and it can be any kind of content. It could be a map at a train station that gives you dynamic, related content for that area.

It’s unique because you can be four or five train station levels deep inside the New York underground and there may be three screens near you. With this technology, content can be served to you based on your location, even though there is no GPS this deep underground.

Beacons could save your life

Another example is the ‘yellow button’ safety measure for travellers you can see on Melbourne Metro platforms, where you can press one of these buttons if you need help. With beacon technology we could connect with existing response networks like that, and use BLE to pinpoint someone’s location very accurately, even indoors.

Rather than having to find the nearest button if you’re at the platform and you see someone in distress or you need assistance you can fire up the relevant transport app and by tapping that yellow button in the app, it would triangulate your position using the four nearest beacons and send your details to the nearest security guard.

Big picture thinking

Looking to the future, ownership, distribution and security of data become the major questions. We don’t want to end up in some dystopian world in the next 15 to 20 years where all of a sudden you are denied health insurance because the data that is being collected now suggests you are almost certainly going to have some kind of health issue in the future.

There is certainly a lot of deep thought going into this and I’m confident we will get there in a way that will help everyone.

People make the decisions about technology

It’s important to acknowledge the human element in all technological progress. New technology is almost always met with suspicion, reluctance or even outright rejection – at first. But people will adopt new technology if they see a personal benefit. They’ll make concessions – such as giving up their privacy – in proportion to the benefit experienced when using that technology.

The future isn’t knowable, so we are always speculating. But the future isn’t something that will be forced on us. We are the ones driving change and creating our culture.

We create the future we want; technology like beacons are just the tools we use to shape that future.

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