Warhol, One Direction and workouts are better with beacons

Warhol, One Direction and workouts are better with beacons

There has been a lot of chat in the blogosphere and marketing press about a hot new technology called ‘beacons’.

Beacons are small, wireless transmitters that broadcast radio signals short distances where smartphones and devices hear the signals.

They can be used to deliver personalised messages, provide additional detailed descriptions of products and exhibits or convey bespoke adverts,
thank-you notes, event schedules and special offers.

Much of the chatter has been focused – understandably – on their retail applications. These include automatic acceptance of tickets, loyalty cards and payments.

But we think that the opportunities in the arts, leisure, entertainment and tourism are even better. Here’s how.

So what actually is a Beacon?

A Bluetooth Beacon sensor uses a low-energy Bluetooth 4.0 chip that runs up to two years on a battery. A soft silicone case protects the hardware, and the sticky back allows users to attach the sensor to any flat surface made of wood, glass or concrete.

Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE was specifically designed to consume low amounts of energy to extend battery life. Yet by increasing battery capacity the technology could offer benefits that reach the realm of science fiction.

The beacon transmits a signal – the strength of which indicates your distance from it. If your device knows the location of 3 or more beacons it can “micro-locate” your position within a few centimetres. A signal can be detected from up to 70 metres (200 feet) away.

Those with an enabled device (like a Apple iPhone 4s and above, or Samsung Galaxy – a full list is here  don’t need to take any actions to receive instant transmissions when they walk through the door. This means that information can be pushed to the recipient based on their precise location.

The technology has existed since 2006, but Apple introduced iOS7 in 2013, calling their protocol iBeacon, it gained far wider recognition. iBeacon is their protocol for using BLE to trigger app interactions, and iOS7 introduced a function within the OS to allow apps to register an identifier which iOS should keep looking for even when the app is offline. This way the phone can trigger a message to the app when the user comes into range of a beacon with the identifier.

This renewed interest in the technology and created more focus on other beacon technology companies such as Gimbal and Estimote.

As part of our ongoing R&D activity we have in January 2014 been accepted onto the Gimbal Developer Programme, so Beacons are a hot topic for us at the moment. As Gimbal says: “the platform enables brands, retailers and venues to engage customers with relevant, timely and personalised content to their mobile devices”.

“A 5 year old could do that”

So you’re stood in front of a Jackson Pollock. It’s just a bunch of squiggles right? Well actually, no.

Looking at art, or indeed any exhibition, can sometimes feel like window shopping – you see, but don’t truly understand. Who was the artist, what were they feeling when painting this picture? What was the studio like? Who were their peers? What was their earlier work, and how did it influence this piece?

These are all questions that feasibly could be answered in a gallery brochure, but it would be a document as big as a Yellow Pages – who would want to lug that around on a Saturday afternoon? And once it’s printed, what if you want to add more content?

Audio tours are great, but limited in scope. You can’t show video, or imagery, and the length of content is restricted by the time it takes to replay the audio back to the listener. Plus at the end of the tour the headphones are handed back – what if the visitor wants to reflect on a piece when at home?


So how could Beacons help?

Specific content could be collated for each piece within a gallery. The visitor would download an app, and the beacon would push content to their smartphone based on what they were looking at.

This content could include essays, critic interviews, artist vox pops, and suggested partner content – for example another artist of the same movement, but housed in a different part of the gallery.

These pieces could be ‘saved to favourites’ with additional interactivity built in – for example allowing the visitor to leave a message or opinion, which could then be moderated and shared on social media or the gallery website.

This could also be a great way to get children engaged in the arts while building a customer database. For example, view a painting and then have a “colour in” version sent to your parent’s email address.

Following a visit, the user could save their trip to the smartphone app, letting them revisit the experience at any time and enjoy the depth of information given to them. Links to the attraction’s website would allow the option of purchasing souvenirs or further interaction with exhibits – after the visitor had left the location.

The possibilities for remote learning opportunities, and engagement with schools would be extensive, and would benefit both user and establishment.

This depth of content could be added to any Beacon-enabled location – such as a town landmark, public art piece, or country house garden.

“It’s around here, somewhere”

It’s easy to get disoriented when you are in a new city, music festival, or large department store.

Maps are fine, but are not easily updated, and can’t send alerts out at a given time – such as “Russell Brand is about to do an impromptu show 500 metres from where you are!” or “ride times at the Log Flume are getting shorter, come now!”

Beacons would be a much more efficient method of wayfinding and alerts within those locations, giving precise directions to those nearby.

Indoor navigation has always been restricted by the capabilities of GPS. With Beacon, pop-up guides could show routes to related exhibits, or unique events and happenings. Subways, airports and other areas would no longer suffer from the restrictions of GPS signal.

Imagine that after your cardio work-out you were guided to the next piece of equipment in the gym – with your own personal workout plan pushed to you, against which you could map your progress.


“Offer available, but only right here”

Because Beacons are location based, you could reward people with offers or exclusive content if they visit a specific location.

Creating “rewards” for attendance offer enormous potential for any event, conference, or geographically based marketing campaign – such as city centre sampling, or product demo’s.

Or imagine that you’re at a music festival and hot new dance act Disclosure have just finished performing live. As you leave the area on your way to see the next act, your phone receives a notification letting you know you can download a free track, or exclusive backstage interview.

City centre bars and restaurants could send out push notifications, entitling virtual happy hour or promotional tokens. This could be taken even further, with personalised notifications to those patrons that have already signed up to their smartphone app and demonstrated a particular interest, such as cocktail drinkers or wine buffs.

You could see uses at conferences, trade shows, brand experiences in retail or city centres – anywhere where you would want to encourage attendance. Indeed they act as a powerful incentive to get customers to sign up to apps, allowing the business to acquire data while personalising the brand experience.

Keeping your content fresh

A challenge for any manager would be keeping the beacon content fresh. This particularly applies to anyone that has a dynamic schedule of activity within a location – such as Museums or Galleries

It’s one thing having this technology available, but how do you add new content as it becomes available, and evolve the content as the subject matter itself changes – or indeed its location within a space.

Once a brochure is created, its fixed, you can’t change it. Imagine being able to update the virtual brochure of every person that downloaded one when they visited the museum with the subject matter that interests them. Customers can have a flexible, constantly updating source of knowledge right at their fingertips.

By creating a custom content management system, designed to manage all of the information sent to an application in real-time, you can easily evolve your content as the exhibition space changes.

Edits, additions and changes are quick and easy, and then distributed into your app. This flexibility means you can launch with a ‘Phase 1’ amount of content, and streamline your efforts to deliver new content in the future.

Notifications from Beacons are almost instantaneous. Typically your smartphone is able to receive a push notification signal every 100ms – that’s ten per second!

So you could update app content from your beacon network in real time, which would have significant benefits for live events or locations where schedules are changing constantly – such as responding to traffic or crowds at sporting events.

A content management system could also be integrated with social platforms like Twitter and Facebook – streaming updates as they happen, or moderated by a team of administrators.

What are people really looking at?

Beacons make it far easier to track footfall, enabling companies to gauge people’s true interests, and understand what are the most popular attractions.

The opportunity for this direct feedback, and analytics on the most popular content delivered through the beacon, is another strong reason to consider its adoption.

The traditional audio guide handset is a one way device. A smartphone app is a two way device, with personalised feedback from the person as they experience it. While it is already possible to download audio guides to your smartphone in museums the experience could be greatly enhanced by the use of beacon technology – with significant benefits for both user and owner.

For example, if a large percentage of visitors spent more time looking at one painting than they did any other, you’d want to know why. The beacon app could tell you with short questionnaires, or feedback options. Should this piece then be given more prominence in the gallery, or be featured more in marketing and PR?

Data can be acquired both from how a Beacon system is used (anonymous data) or specific feedback from individual users. Either way the possibilities for data acquisition is huge.


I have no doubt that 2014 will be the year of the beacon in retail. While early pioneers have already emerged, many businesses are now eagerly experimenting with the technology.

It will be interesting to see how other applications – particularly in the arts, leisure, entertainment and tourism industries as we discuss here – develop within that time.

Yet in order to succeed, businesses will need to create experiences that truly engage and add value. The technology is here and people are ready, now it’s time to make it happen.

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