WILL BE SHIPPED
According to a recent report from US technology market intelligence company ABI Research, more than 500 million beacons will have been shipped by 2021. It was Apple that first popularised these small geolocation transmitters, which are designed to interact with a smartphone or tablet, generally via Bluetooth, when it came out with the iBeacon in 2013. Meanwhile startups manufacturing these low-energy radio transmitters, including two companies based in the Polish city of Krakow – Estimote, which last year raised $10.7 million in Series A funding; and Kontakt.io, which has already raised $5 million in capital – have enjoyed real business success.
Beacons have aroused a great deal of interest in the retail sector, without however achieving an entirely convincing performance. Now ABI Research experts argue that the future of the technology could well lie in other applications. They are predicting that the number of beacons in use for personal tracking, the Internet of Things and real-time geolocation should soon overtake use in the retail space. Perhaps beacons’ ‘true destiny’ lies in assisting the transition to the Smart City.
This was the topic addressed by four panellists during a session entitled ‘Beacons and the Smart Cities of Tomorrow’ at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, Texas. Chuck Sabin, Senior Director, Business Strategy and Planning, at the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, Emmanuel Azih, founder and CEO of asset-tracking solutions provider BeaconGrid, Julie Huls, the interim CEO at DOSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids, and Jason Dusterhoft, Assistant Chief of the Austin, Texas Police Department all agreed that micro-location can have a positive impact on society, including saving lives.
Precisely locating people in distress
“When you call an emergency number, with a bit of luck the services might just be able to locate you within 100 to 300 metres of the address you give, but they can’t tell what floor you’re on or which side of the building,” Dusterhoft pointed out. Emmanuel Azih admitted he had been taken aback when he first discovered this fact: “As a citizen I wasn’t aware of this problem when calling the [US emergency number] 911 services. It came as a shock. In the past, this problem didn’t arise because your address was always linked to a fixed telephone line. That’s no longer the case with mobile phones. And GPS signals often bounce around inside buildings,” the BeaconGrid founder underlined.
In these rather acute circumstances, beacons could prove to be a lifeline. They enable the transmitter carrier to be precisely spotted, even in a closed space such as a hotel or car park. In an emergency the Austin police, ambulance unit and the fire & rescue service would know exactly in which room or bedroom, corridor and precise location the distressed person can be found, thus saving precious time. Every minute counts when for instance someone suffers a heart attack. In such cases, if the heart remains stopped for more than five minutes, brain damage is irreversible. However, if help arrives within one minute, the chances of survival increase by 10%.
Even before help arrives, a beacon can help people in distress by sending to their smartphone a plan showing the nearest exit, fire extinguisher or defibrillator. Apart from Austin, a number of other cities are now starting to exploit the potential of this technology.
In December 2015, Columbus (Ohio) became the first city in the United States to install public beacons. The ‘Columbus Safe City’ initiative enables residents to download an app which sends them alerts and which they can use to report suspicious or non-emergency activity. Californian startup Piper has already installed over a thousand beacons across the city. If a person feels that his/her safety is being threatened or sees someone behaving suspiciously, s/he can call or send a message to the police with just one click in the app. The coordinates of the nearest beacon will also be automatically relayed along with the message. The police will receive the alert directly in their system and can quickly find the place where their assistance is needed.
Improving access to public transport
At the airports, beacons are also being used to inform passengers as to how long each stage of their boarding process – check-in, passport control, customs, etc. – will take. This sort of information is extremely valuable for those who wish to plan the use of their time and avoid missing the flight. A survey conducted in 2016 by SITA, a company that provides IT and communications services to the aerospace industry, revealed that 61% of all airports would like to deploy beacon technology in the check-in process by 2018. In addition, 40% of them intend to use beacons to inform passengers, on landing at the destination, how long they will have to wait to recover their baggage.
One dynamic geek even decided to try out beacon technology all by himself. He bought a beacon, verified that its use would not interfere with connected equipment in the vicinity, programmed it and placed it in his suitcase. Hey presto! No need to stand there with your eyes riveted on the luggage conveyer belt with that awful anxiety in the pit of your stomach that your bags might never arrive. As soon as the suitcase containing the beacon comes into range, the owner will automatically receive an alert on his/her smartphone.
The applications and potential benefits of location beacons are many but their use is so far not very widespread in the Smart City environment. According to a survey carried out in late 2016 by Unacast, a data platform serving the ‘Proximity Industry’, only 35% of the 20 biggest airports in the United States, are currently equipped with them. However, this may be about to change. Unacast quotes SITA saying that by 2019, 84% of all major US airports intend to carry out a pilot programme with a view to deploying beacons.
However, expanding the use of these little transmitters will depend on people turning on the Bluetooth wireless interconnection system on their smartphones. If users decide not to do so, beacons will not be able to attain their full potential. Some people are still afraid that leaving their Bluetooth connection on will run their battery down, but this fear is becoming increasingly unfounded nowadays, as users of Bluetooth headsets, such as Apple Airpods, can testify. These users are certainly among the 40% of North American consumers who leave their Bluetooth on permanently.
Obstacles still to overcome
Interim CEO at DOSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids
Innovation always moves faster than legislation. As citizens, we have an important responsibility to make sure our policymakers are aware of what’s happening and push them along.
Citizen-users are more likely to come on board and so benefit to a greater extent from beacon technology if they know who has access to their data, how it is being used and where it is stored. The SXSW panellists suggested that it should be possible for citizens to give their authorisation to be geolocated only when they make an emergency call. In this scenario, a call for assistance would automatically activate the geolocation function on the phone. In reality, there are a lot of apps that record this type of information even when it is not strictly necessary for them to work properly. Citizens ought to be able to have control over the data they transmit and should put some pressure on the public authorities in order to gain this power.
“Innovation always moves faster than legislation. As citizens, we have an important responsibility to make sure our policymakers are aware of what’s happening and push them along," insisted Julie Huls, interim CEO at DOSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids and former President of the Austin Technology Council. And to overcome people’s resistance to change, education is key, she underlined, telling the SXSW audience: "We have a responsibility that people understand the benefits that go along with technology. We need to explain what a Smart City is, what beacon technology does and the benefits it can bring to the community in terms of public safety.”
Emmanuel Azih emphasised another fundamental issue: the importance of Customer Experience in the Smart City environment. It is important to ensure that citizens do not receive too many notifications or alerts so that they do not grow tired of beacons. Used properly, the technology could have many useful applications in the Smart City, one example being on university campuses, where beacons can be used to verify students’ course attendance or enable a member of the teaching staff to send out messages or questionnaires to all the students in a given classroom.