The Year of the iBeacon: roundup

The Year of the iBeacon: roundup

Our Year of the iBeacon event on the afternoon of 21 May saw a lot of ‘great minds that do not think alike’ come together in Cambridge, UK. It was here that we pushed the boundaries of iBeacon-inspired user experiences. Starting with three speakers, Leo Poll (me) from Akendi, Nicolas Graube from CSR (find his slides here) and Shkumbin Hamiti from Nokia, the presentations set the scene for what was to be the most productive part of the afternoon – the innovation brainstorms.

Getting people together from different backgrounds, companies, markets and disciplines is a good way of sparking thoughts and inspiring ideas that an individual on their own would ever be able to come up with. The iBeacon brainstorms certainly were no exception with a large amount of ideas generated in just one hour!

Discussing every single idea that came out of the effective session is out of the scope of this post so let’s just focus on some of the themes that emerged. I’ve also pulled out five ‘golden nuggets’ for you to take away.

Three themes emerged from the iBeacon brainstorm sessions:

  • iBeacon in a fixed location, a device moves within range. The most obvious and traditional way of considering uses for iBeacons. In theory a device can (crudely) determine how close it is to an iBeacon but in practice this is not very reliable beyond the notion of ‘in range of’ and/or ‘placed on top of’. For instance, on a hospital ward, it will be impossible with iBeacons alone to give patient specific information on a patient in a bed with the clinician just standing in front of it. However, a clinician could tap an iBeacon placed on a bed with his mobile device to explicitly indicate that this is the patient he needs information about or select it from a list on his device triggered by the iBeacon in that specific ward. This is just one example of how to deal with location inaccuracy. In general, iBeacons are great for limiting the options to what is present within a radius of x meters but, in most cases, explicit action from a user is still required. This, in turn, makes it crucial that what a user perceived in the physical environment and the digital environment on her device matches up perfectly.

  • Mobile iBeacon entering a space where its presence is detected by another device. Technically speaking this doesn’t physically have to be an iBeacon but could also be a mobile device simulating an iBeacon. Use of iBeacons in this way is not the same as a RFID tag. In short, a (passive) RFID tag can only reveal its ID when interrogated by an external device. An iBeacon will volunteer its ID without being asked. With up to 4 years of battery life and a consumer retail price of under $20 each this really is becoming a feasible addition not just as an accessory (think keyfob) for us, mere mortals, but also as an addition to frequently used objects such as a bicycle, car, briefcase, shoes, etc….

  • An iBeacon disappears. Zero has a value or in other words not knowing something is there can be important too. This gas plenty of applications in security for objects, people (children), locating ‘Things’ etc.

On to the golden nuggets:

As I wrote in a previous post, solution brainstorming for technology-push exploration should be used to identify possible needs that can be addressed rather than ‘cool solutions’. The select golden nuggets below seem to effectively meet the articulated needs but they do require further work. None of these have been validated or commercially quantified.

Where is my seat?

It is 8:00am at the railway station in Cambridge. Commuters to London are gathering at the platform to board the train that has yet to arrive and has already picked up commuters from a number of previous stations. The question is, where does a passenger need to stand to have the best chance of actually getting a seat? iBeacons to the rescue! A seat recommendation system could combine knowledge of seat occupancy in the oncoming train with knowledge of how many commuters are waiting where to distribute people to the best places on the platform to board the train. This idea requires quite a lot of infrastructure but it becomes a golden nugget when we turn it upside down. Install iBeacons in carriages, let the app of passengers on board report their presence, estimate the occupancy and inform commuters on a platform. Beautifully simple, low cost and a great differentiator for a train company’s app.

Need/pain point: Finding a seat on the commuter train in the morning is difficult / stressfull

Bare bones alerting

Car navigation is a great example of blending the online world with the physical to extend the knowledge of what is available to a user beyond her line of sight. iBeacons add an extra dimension to this. Apple’s technical implementation of iBeacon technology allows applications to be triggered once an iBeacon has been detected. Unlike a satellite navigation system they do not need to run continuously which considerably saves on battery life. Some of the ideas generated in the automotive space are inspired by this. Examples such as receiving a max speed warning, the presence of speed cameras, notification of an upcoming exit, etc. are all examples of tiny but essential messages. At the very least, with a max speed warning in place, when you are speeding at least you know that you are! Technically (in theory :-)), this should be fairly straightforward but it does require a rather large number of iBeacons to installed for the system to be useful.

Need/pain point: When I am distracted as a driver I miss important notices that could mean I get a fine (and points on my license).

Open Sesame!

iBeacons can be used as location specific keys in a novel form of two-factor authentication. Only with the iBeacon present and your personal login details will you be granted access to specific content. This can vary from unlocking physical doors and filing cabinets, additional info on objects to gaining access to a location specific infotainment network. A simple idea but quite powerful if the iBeacon ID is used in combination with a security app such as Google authenticator.

Need/pain point: I know security is important but do not want to do anything special.

Join the queue….

…but not as you know it. You’ve booked your doctor’s appointment online using the app on your phone and you enter the GP practice. The app is triggered by the iBeacon in the GP practice, informs the system that you have arrived for your appointment and tells you how many patients are before you (or what number you are) and how long you can expect to wait. You, the user/patient, haven’t done anything up to this point. Having seamlessly checked in by ‘just turning up’ you can now go for that coffee at the coffee shop across the road. Your mobile device will keep you informed of the queues progress without the need to wait in a stuffy waiting room for your number to appear on a display. Beautifully simple, technically straightforward and again not just beneficial to the patient experience, think smaller waiting rooms, reduced number of reception staff etc, as the obvious benefits to the practice! Importantly, this scenario doesn’t just apply to GP practices but is applicable everywhere where people queue.

Need/pain point: queuing is a fact of life but a waste of time.


Tagging objects to get notified about when they are no longer there is a fairly mature application of iBeacon (or low power bluetooth to be precise) and similar technologies. However, knowing when something comes within range can be a matter of life and death if you are a cyclist. Alerting truck drivers of the presence of an iBeacon equipped bicycle can make all the difference to the (motor) cyclist. From a business perspective, this is a more tricky one because of the chicken and egg problem of needing a large install base to entice people to buy into the system. However, an iBeacon added to a bicycle could double up as a theft prevention device. Bike theft as well as accidents both affect insurance companies so it might well be that this could of interest from their business perspective. As usual, there is more than one stakeholder in most experience designs and creativity should not be limited to the experience itself but also to the business case and models that make an experience financially viable.

Need/pain point: I (the driver) cannot see cyclists in when they are in my blindspot. The pain point from the cyclist point of view here is obvious.

The above are just five of the ideas that jumped out of the brainstorm as the golden nuggets and it is impossible to do full justice to all the ideas suggested during the workshop. Some of the ideas suggested require more technical infrastructure than others but they all demonstrate how a relatively simple location trigger can inspire a whole range of experiences that address previously unknown needs or needs that people are aware of but simply could not yet be met. Of course, more work needs to be done to validate the needs in the first place from a customer/user and business perspective but our solution exploration through brainstorming has at least allowed the delegates to uncover some of the unknown needs. This is what experience innovation is all about, identifying possible unmet needs by solution experimentation.

What is important are the next steps.

The tendency is to take any of the golden nuggets and develop these into products. What needs to be done next is to articulate the underlying need so that it can be validated with all the stakeholders to assess its viability (e.g. the need to get directed to a seat in the train/theatre or a time slot for a certain event, for example, a doctor’s visit, in the most efficient and pleasant way). The solution will then need to be revisited. Maybe no iBeacon technology will be used at all because it isn’t needed once we really get to the underlying need.

Dr. Leo Poll is Director of Akendi UK.  A firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design, to learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit

One Response to The Year of the iBeacon: roundup

  1. Interesting post Leo. The Need / pain point format is a very powerful story telling tool also. It also helps in focusing on what is really important.

    What I have also seen is that people focus too much on technologies and trends, which is the easiest to do rather than actually finding the need and solving a problem.

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