Beacons take baby steps into businesses

Intriguing notions are emerging on how to use the simple Bluetooth location devices for smarter work processes

Beacons take baby steps into businesses
Credit: Pixabay

When Apple debuted the iBeacon technology three years ago in iOS, Bluetooth beacons showed a lot of potential. Today, little of that potential seems to have become reality, despite all the tests by retailers and Google's entry into beacons with its Eddystone technology (for both iOS and Android).

But there's much more to both life and business than shopping, as some early beacons concepts showed. Unfortunately, beacon usage has progressed even more slowly in nonretail scenarios than in retail situations. Still, it's too soon to give up on beacons' promise -- and in fact, enterprise uses in particular are starting to emerge.

The devices are deceptively simple: They transmit unique IDs to smartphones. Then an app can look up the ID over the internet to determine the beacon's location and, thus, provide relevant information for that location. Some can also detect smartphones' Bluetooth signals and anonymously count people nearby. The hard part is actually making beacons work at scale.

Using beacons outside of retail

The obvious usage for beacons is retail, so shoppers in, say, the shoe department can get immediate help on shoe availability when there and not have to navigate through the store's app. It also lets stores track where individual customers spend their time, to build up profiles of interests for upselling and cross-selling, even in real time -- doing in a physical location what e-commerce providers like do with their online tracking.

So what can enterprises do with beacons? Several possible uses treat the beacon as a sort of smarter card reader:

  • Using a beacon to detect location, a user's smartphone identifies him or her to, say, the elevator so that you can manage which floors a person can access.
  • A beacon detects who has approached the conference system and sets that person as the moderator -- ReadyTalk has such an option for its conferencing service.
  • Beacons could detect who is in the room, so they can use conference tools such as marking conversations to replay or sending comments or emojis to the conference system from their phones. (ReadyTalk is exploring that notion.) After all, people who go to a conference room are at a disadvantage versus those who joined in by computer because they don't have their computers to do other conference functions. (If they are also using their computer in the conference room, that defeats the purpose of being in the room.)
  • Beacons replace the need for some time sheets, with apps able to detect automatically based on when people enter and leave a facility. 
  • Beacons can initiate the command on your smartphone to turn on lights or temperature controls based on the preferences of the individuals in the room, not based on a one-size-fits-all setting.

A more conventional beacon use is as a wayfinder, where beacons work like internal GPS so that you can check your position against a map and even get directions to where you want to go in a campus, airport, hospital, museum, theme park, or office building.

There were dozens of such wayfinding pilot projects in 2013 and 2014, though there's little evidence of them today. One reason may be that you need an app to interact with the beacons, and people will install and run only so many apps before resorting to good old maps, signage, and asking people for directions.

That explains why airlines and airports have pivoted from using beacons for passenger directions to testing them for employee use, such as to count passengers (anonymously) in a waiting area to identify where staff might need to be routed, then match staff location (also via beacons) to redeploy them as needed.

The challenges of beacon adoption in the enterprise

One challenge for enterprise adoption of beacons is that they require a smartphone and usually an app. Some courts have ruled that if you require people to carry a smartphone for business use, you need to pay for part of the monthly costs of the smartphone plan. That can get expensive fast.

Or maybe not. You don't need a data plan to use a beacon -- Wi-Fi does the trick of connecting the required apps to the internet. And it's free (for the user) at an office, notes Tony Kush, vice president of R&D for mobile technologies at VMware. With most working adults now carrying a smartphone, it may be reasonable to expect all employees to have one, even if only for use as essentially an employee badge. You could thus restrict data-plan reimbursement to employees who need to use the smartphones outside the office, he suggests. That's an interesting idea, though it probably should be explained delicately to your workforce.

Still, you need to have the apps installed and running on all users' devices, which requires a distribution method of some sort, whether an enterprise app store or essentially harnessing embarrassment and peer pressure to motivate people into downloading them from a public app store.

But you could flip the deployment around, suggests Tim Myers, product manager at ReadyTalk. Beacons could be embedded in employee badges or carried around as badges; a tablet in a room would detect which beacons have entered and thus know who has come in. (Computers don't currently support the iBeacons or Eddystone technologies, so they can't be that intelligent hub device. Only mobile devices can do that today.)

As a result, employees no longer need to have specific apps running on their smartphones. And you don't have to worry about people who still have flip phones or whose Bluetooth is off or not working right. Although the typical model is for the beacon to be fixed and the intelligence (the network-connected app) to be portable, that doesn't have to be the case.

Perhaps over times beacons will not be so tied to smartphones or tablets but can instead communicate to the network directly. Oh, wait -- that's the internet of things, where intelligent sensors can do exactly that. There's an intriguing possibility that beacons will evolve to handle both people-oriented and IoT interactions and not be so single-purpose as current iOT devices -- rather than stick with Apple's original "dumb device, smartphone" vision. After all, why not have that kind of flexibility in the sensor and control networks you have to deploy and manage? That would be the best of both worlds.

If it happens, enterprise use cases will likely show the way.

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