When Apple announced iBeacons last year my team and I were a buzz with the potential. But a year later, I have to say that I’m disappointed at the experiences most companies are dreaming up. Retailers haven’t moved passed what is essentially the digital version of someone handing you a coupon/flyer on the way in. These kinds of ideas seem to be great for the company, but offer no utility or magic for the user. Consumers don’t get excited about new ways to market to them. iBeacons are just waiting for designers to dream up more contextual experiences.
Just imagine if your lights, stereo and Nest had beacons in them. You could use beacons to adjust your lighting ambience, temperature, and music simply by you walking into a room. It can also make that room more energy efficient by detecting when it’s unoccupied for 10 minutes and shutting down unused devices.
Or what if you had a beacon on your dog’s collar? What experience might you be able to design?
Estimote is trying to make things easier with beacons they’ve turned into stickers they call Nearables. They’re nearly weightless and just millimeter-thick (about the size of a postage stamp).
So how do iBeacons work?
iBeacons are simply Apple’s version of Bluetooth LE beacons. These beacons send data, but don’t receive any. Generally beacons broadcast a micro-location (in a radius as small as 10cm) to your phone. Not just your iPhone, they work with Android and other smartphones as well (Am I the only one who has a hard time putting Windows & ‘smart’phone in the same sentence?).
Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned this year:
1. iBeacons Are Not Intelligent, Just Contextual
iBeacons just broadcast their identity, which in turn offers an opportunity to act contextually. All the intelligence comes entirely from the device and the apps running on it.
2. iBeacon Detection Is Not Instant
When your application is active, detection of an iBeacon can take anywhere between 5-10 seconds (longer when exiting the region). When closed this can take considerably longer. The reason for the variable delay is that the discovery requires the broadcast and search to coincide with each other–affected by how frequently the iBeacon advertises itself and how often the receiver scans, and there is an obvious trade-off between responsiveness and demands on the battery.
3. Impact On Design And Implementation
Previously when designing apps you had a relatively linear user experience. In contrast, the essence of context-aware computing is about adapting and behaving accordingly to different scenarios–even a simple prototype requires complex decision trees and a fair amount of code to handle the different states.
4. Users Still Want Control
You can’t just automate everything. It’s important to ensure you expose enough functionality to give users a sense of control. At least let them take over when they want.
Designing context-aware experiences that delights users remains elusive for most companies. iBeacons by themselves are not that interesting but you can add an effective environmental signal that can be used to better understand the user’s current context. It gives those of us who design and build digital experiences an opportunity to start building simple contextually aware interactions and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
So get out there and make some magic.