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iBeacon: What It Is, Why You Should Care and the Power of Enhanced Experiences

A few months ago at WWDC 2013, there was a brief mention on a single slide of something called “iBeacon” – no one had a clue what this was at the time. Since then, iBeacon has been the single, most blogged about, new feature of iOS 7.

So what on earth is iBeacon?! In a single sentence, iBeacon is simply API access to both the sending and transmitting of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals. Well, on the surface that doesn’t sound too interesting, so why is it creating so much buzz on the web?

Before I get into all the fun possibilities iBeacon presents, it’s important to understand the difference between BLE and Classic Bluetooth (you know, the one used to pair your headset with your phone). Classic Bluetooth was designed by Nokia in 1994 and enables devices to connect for long periods of time with consistent and hefty data transfer loads. BLE on the other hand, is extremely lightweight transient connections – read: no pairing requirements and minimal battery draw. As a Product Manager at Pivotal Labs, this is where I start to get really excited. Let me explain why…

Before iBeacon, we were essentially limited to WiFi, GPS and Classic Bluetooth as communication channels. WiFi is for great high bandwidth connections, but the hardware is expensive, power hungry and the signal strength is difficult to control for anything other than data transfer. GPS can’t be used for pushing data to devices and doesn’t triangulate position fast or accurate enough for anything other than traditional navigation. Classic Bluetooth’s requirements are truly limited to long term pairing. Cue: Bluetooth Low Energy! The introduction of BLE devices, which support transient connections, suddenly means apps can be designed to actually interact with their immediate environment.

Wait – interact with their immediate environment? That’s right – and this is an extremely powerful concept for marketers, user experience designers and anyone who wants to leverage the power of context for a truly engaging app.

Now that I’ve kept everyone on the edge of their seat for long enough, how do we think that iBeacon will change the landscape? We’re already exploring iBeacon use within the retail and hospitality sectors, and our engineers have produced some compelling demos that hint at exciting possibilities.

Let’s talk about a specific use case: this morning while I was waiting in line for a coffee, I launched the app of one of my favourite clothiers to see what’s new for the upcoming winter lineup. I didn’t have time to read everything about the product while in line, but a couple of items caught my eye, so I added them to my wish list as a reminder to give them a closer look later. After work, I actually ended up going to the mall to pick something up at the Apple Store. Right as I entered the store, I checked my phone for what I thought was a text message, but it was actually a push notification from the same retailer I had been browsing earlier. It told me that one of items I added to my wish list (the cardigans always get me), was actually in stock and right next door! Well that was easy – definitely going in to check out the cardigan now. Talk about a powerful experience.

At Pivotal Labs, we’ve already built a demo showcasing this exact functionality. Let me tell you, the ability to combine a fine grain geofence with features like a unified in-app shopping cart or wish list truly allows companies to provide high-value experiences that yield conversions.

What else is possible? If you’re a marketer in retail or hospitality, the possibilities are endless. Some scenarios I’m interested in exploring with our team revolve around in-store navigation and enhanced customer service. With beacons placed around a store, apps could be used to guide customers to a specific product they’re looking for, highlight sale items in the aisle they’re in, or even offer any easy way to flag an associate.

We’ve all been in a big box store before where a personalized experience was unthinkable – nevermind trying to track down a rep. With iBeacon, businesses can launch an app, allow users to raise a virtual hand and provide customers with a positive and customized experience that’s sure to increase engagement and conversions.

iBeacon is an exciting example of how we can use native apps today to leverage the latest technology to improve consumers’ experiences and drive the bottom line.

Keep the conversation going by connecting with Mitch!

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