Twenty years ago I saw my first billboard displaying a World Wide Web address. Not surprisingly, I was in San Francisco. About 10 years later many of us were visiting that web from mobile devices without wired connections, often accompanied by a cup of coffee. Search got dramatically better when we were able to disclose our location to Google and to apps like Facebook and Foursquare, among others.
At this time it is possible for something you carry to detect a signal from both stationary and moving objects equipped with the BluetoothLE radio transmitter, a tiny device requiring little power, and able to wake up an app, or simply offer a connection you may accept or ignore. Both approaches involve permission. In the case of the app, you gave it when you agreed to install it, although agreeing to provide your location may be a separate step. The alternative case involves choosing to see what is available around you. In this illustration, the transmitter offers a menu, each item on which was created by an individual who wants folks nearby to know something about him or his business.
What can be done with the recognition of proximity is a dizzyingly broad canvas. You might put a transmitter on your dog’s collar and the information someone finding him would need to get him back to you up on a webpage. When a smart device gets close to the lost animal it can receive that web link, open it and mend your heartache. In other cases a visual trigger might cause you to look for content in your immediate surrounding. The image below demonstrates how something called “the Physical Web” is brought to our attention via the placement of a logo on a door, even the window of a car for sale. Currently, Android users would access whatever notification there is via the Chrome browser on their Smartphone. Apple users have that same choice and a couple more. An alternative approach is the creation of a zone, a proprietary solution in which beacons in effect map out a shopping street or mall. A beacon at the entrance to the zone explains the voyage. Subsequent beacons may offer content from specific shops and attractions. All of this location-relevant content comes via an app, created to support the zone. So, the Smartphone Chrome browser in one case, a dedicated app in the other.
At another point on the spectrum the same recognition of proximity could navigate you through an airport, taking you to your gate and providing on-time information. It can assist vision-impaired individuals in crossing similar spaces with limited human intervention by triggering speech modules to provide information and direction. And in a retail store, it can not only identify that you are standing next to the TV wall, it can measure how long you’re immobile (dwell time) and decide that you might be interested in information about one or more of the products near you. It might even change the video playing on a screen to one offering features, price, warranty and so on. These examples introduce proximity’s twin – context awareness. When our device is understood to be near an object, event or thing, an app may make an assumption regarding what we might welcome, perhaps because we are stationary for a measurable period. If you’re stopped before a store display, you might receive a choice of items to learn more about. Typically, this kind of engagement comes from a “beacon-rich” environment, where the danger of “spamming” you is understood and where care is taken to provide relevant content, not just another push.
Can You Play Too?
There is no doubt that it will be businesses large and small, in segments including retail, healthcare, transportation, events, stadiums and attractions, that will dominate the disbursement of proximity beacons and the content they reveal. But no one is excluded from participating.