One of the great sessions planned for DSrupted in September is built around the most buzzed in-store technology these days – Bluetooth Low Energy beacons. There’s a huge amount of interest in tech that activates engagement with smartphone-clutching consumers, but not a hell of a lot of understanding about how the technology can best be used.
So DSrupted features an hour with Doug Thompson, the Co-Founder of dot3, Ltd. which helps brands and organizations to reach consumers through beacon technology and the Internet of Things. Thompson also writes the go-to blog on beacon technology, suitably named Beekn.
Ahead of DSrupted, I asked him to field some questions about BLE and tee things up for the event.
Q – It strikes me that a huge amount of buzz has enveloped BLE and beacons since Apple announced its own version, but not a lot of people really “get” the possibilities and implications. Fair statement?
Yes, I think it’s fair but understandable. With every newer technology we first reach for comparisons and metaphors that we understand. With beacons, the things we understand in a retail environment, for example, are coupons and loyalty cards, and beacons sound a lot like WiFi or little tracking devices.
So what happens first is sometimes a misconception – just because we grasp for things we easily understand. Coupons, loyalty cards – we all “get” those, and so beacons have become associated with push messages and repeating past paradigms.
But the true disruptions come not from the easy analogies but from discovering what couldn’t be done before.
Beacons represent an easily understood device that’s part of a larger and more profound trend: the merger of the physical and digital. When we say to people that beacons show us that “there is no offline” most people take it to mean that “there is no escaping online”. But we mean it quite literally – a store, a shelf, a product…these are now digital interfaces. And learning to think of them that way takes a profound shift in how we think about physical spaces.
Q – What are the main misconceptions?
Three main misconceptions:
- That beacons track you (on their own, they don’t, they’re just transmission devices like radios);
- That beacons are like GPS for indoors (they’re proximity devices); and
- That beacons stay fixed in place (your phone can be a beacon, or a beacon can be attached to moving objects, staff members or even delivery trucks!)
Q – What are people overlooking?
I think the main thing is that beacons represent making everything more responsive. Your phone can respond to a product on a shelf, sure. But they can also connect you with staff in a store, they can connect to digital signage, they can power up or down lights or change the temperature. They make the physical world a digital interface that can respond to user movement and interest, create new experiences, create new ways of thinking about store, space and experience design.
Q – You’ve mentioned in your speaker’s topic there are both opportunities and challenges. What do people need to know before they start looking at this technology seriously?
There are technical challenges – we’re now entering a second wave of beacon devices where they combine with other technologies like WiFi and cell networks, create mesh networks, and create local hubs for the delivery of content. We have beacons powered in different ways, and challenges with signal interference and beacon placement.
But the bigger challenge is experience design. Do you want user experiences that are ambient or push? Are you after personalization or media layers? Do you want to create a “techy” experience driven by big data, or simple ways to connect people to other people?
We’ve added new tools to the design toolkit, and they’re radically different than what most agencies or brands have used before.
Q – I’ve heard pronouncements that BLE means NFC is dead on arrival. But aren’t they very different technologies doing very different things?
They’re highly complementary. We’re already seeing really clever integrations of the two technologies and I expect to see that enhanced in the months to come.
Q – How do you think these sorts of retail technologies apply to digital signage?
The main thing is that signage has a new community of users who can react, interact and respond to signage in more robust ways. With more precise proximity detection, signage can make choices about what to display based on the proximity of users, and signage can play a more integrated role with other, smaller screens – whether the screen on your phone or the screen on your watch.
Q – Can you give me an example of a company – a brand or retailer – that’s doing this stuff well right now?
Well, Apple is a great example. Not because the beacon is the most pronounced part of their experience, but because they’re one tool in a larger tool set used to redefine what an in-store or place-based experience can mean.
The next wave will see beacons integrated into larger and larger networks and will lead to a rethink in the coming decades of what it means to “be in place.”
Doug Thompson will be speaking about Beacon Technology and IOT: Digital Engagement in Place at DSrupted, the first technology conference specifically focused on the impacts of fast-changing technology on the digital signage business. If you are in this business, take a day to get up to speed on how things are changing and where things are going. Registration is only $335 for the Sept. 17th event in Toronto, and tickets are limited.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than 13 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia.