Beacons take baby steps into businesses

Intriguing notions are emerging on how to use the simple Bluetooth location devices for smarter work processes.

By Galen Gruman
Aug. 31, 2016

When Apple debuted the iBeacon technology three years ago in iOS, Bluetooth beacons showed a lot of potential. Today, little of that potential seems to have become reality, despite all the tests by retailers and Google's entry into beacons with its Eddystone technology (for both iOS and Android).

But there's much more to both life and business than shopping, as some early beacons concepts showed. Unfortunately, beacon usage has progressed even more slowly in nonretail scenarios than in retail situations. Still, it's too soon to give up on beacons' promise -- and in fact, enterprise uses in particular are starting to emerge.

The devices are deceptively simple: They transmit unique IDs to smartphones. Then an app can look up the ID over the internet to determine the beacon's location and, thus, provide relevant information for that location. Some can also detect smartphones' Bluetooth signals and anonymously count people nearby. The hard part is actually making beacons work at scale.

Using beacons outside of retail

The obvious usage for beacons is retail, so shoppers in, say, the shoe department can get immediate help on shoe availability when there and not have to navigate through the store's app. It also lets stores track where individual customers spend their time, to build up profiles of interests for upselling and cross-selling, even in real time -- doing in a physical location what e-commerce providers like do with their online tracking.

So what can enterprises do with beacons? Several possible uses treat the beacon as a sort of smarter card reader:

  • Using a beacon to detect location, a user's smartphone identifies him or her to, say, the elevator so that you can manage which floors a person can access.
  • A beacon detects who has approached the conference system and sets that person as the moderator -- ReadyTalk has such an option for its conferencing service.
  • Beacons could detect who is in the room, so they can use conference tools such as marking conversations to replay or sending comments or emojis to the conference system from their phones. (ReadyTalk is exploring that notion.) After all, people who go to a conference room are at a disadvantage versus those who joined in by computer because they don't have their computers to do other conference functions. (If they are also using their computer in the conference room, that defeats the purpose of being in the room.)
  • Beacons replace the need for some time sheets, with apps able to detect automatically based on when people enter and leave a facility. 
  • Beacons can initiate the command on your smartphone to turn on lights or temperature controls based on the preferences of the individuals in the room, not based on a one-size-fits-all setting.

A more conventional beacon use is as a wayfinder, where beacons work like internal GPS so that you can check your position against a map and even get directions to where you want to go in a campus, airport, hospital, museum, theme park, or office building.

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