Looking back over the first year of Apple’s iBeacon, most use cases have been for advertising and retail: Using the low-power Bluetooth protocol, it's easy to offer deals to customers based on their location. But shopping isn't the only experience ripe to be enhanced by this technology. Next up: the workplace.
Why would you use iBeacons in the office? Well, you could keep track of your interns, for one thing. Or if your office space is large and tricky to navigate, iBeacon devices can help guide people around. Digital advertising company Huge is doing exactly that: taking the technology and using its ultra specific location guidance to make navigating its office more efficient. Being able to guide an employee or guest to a specific conference room could cut out a lot of wasted time.
Here’s a look and how the company did it and how you can get started as well.
Be sure to consider what type of hardware you purchase. Michael Welles, principal architect at Huge, says there’s smaller keychain-type hardware running on watch batteries made for lower power and less frequent update intervals, or larger, hockey puck-sized units.
"To save money when we were prototyping, we purchased a mess of the keychains which are not the best quality for our purposes, and caused us no end of pain when trying to fine-tune the location approximation algorithm," says Welles. "Much of the work was making the algorithm smart enough to deal with inaccuracy and making the best approximation from very noisy data. To do this well, it needed to be able to determine which signals it receives are more trustworthy than others and give them preference. "
"In Apple’s iBeacon protocol, each detected iBeacon contains an accuracy reading and is measured in meters, which while specifically stated by Apple ‘Do not use it to identify a precise location for the iBeacon,’ instead is supposed to represent your distance to an iBeacon," says senior software engineer Micah Acinapura. "However, we found this to fluctuate more than we expected. The limitation here is just in the nature of the Bluetooth technology used, which is easily interfered with."
Taking a project from the screen into real-world environments can cause discrepancies if the finer details aren’t kept in mind. Everything from the shape of the office to units of measurement should be considered.
"The important point that people often forget when applying mathematical algorithms in their code, is that the real-world data may not be as perfect as the math suggests, and you often have to ‘massage the data’ or ’assist the math," Acinapura says. "Apple also uses this approach when locating an iPhone, which users may notice when their iPhone alerts them ‘Turning on Wi-Fi will improve location accuracy.’"
This part will likely take a lot of patience and attention to detail, Acinapura says. The major and minor identifiers can be changed, which will matter depending on how many beacons you use and how you want them to interact with each other.
For bigger offices, it’s key to keep in mind that mounting beacons will take planning. While you personally might not mind having these devices around, others might. There’s a good chance people spent good money and time to design the office as it currently looks. The beacons will likely need to be hidden and kept out of sight.
The beacons and their physical locations will need to be stored in a database so that an application can access that information somehow.
An off-the-self solution like Proximity Kit might work for smaller projects or people not wanting to build something themselves. Proximity Kit stores beacon locations, acting as a backend to your app. The service is free for users with five beacons and under.
You’ll need some way for detecting the beacons around the office. Huge built its own iBeacon scanning utility for OS X, which they’ve made available to everyone.
BeaconScanner, as they call it, will detect and display each beacon along with its major and minor identifier. There’s a whole blog post detailing more about the utility, how to install it, and all its capabilities.
Here's where you have to figure out how employees or office guests will actually use the iBeacon technology you’ve installed.
In the case of Huge, they’re in the process of finishing their iOS app, which will be available to all employees internally. For guests, the idea is to have a few iPod Touch’s with the app preloaded available as they come to the front desk. iOS will be the first platform supported and it will expand to Android in the future.
If using iBeacons to guide people to different conference rooms doesn’t fulfill your needs, there’s still other reasons to consider iBeacons for the office.
For Huge, once it started building and implementing the beacon system, the team realized that it could be used for tracking all different kinds of office supplies. Huge hasn't jumped on the people-tracking train yet, though Acinapura says there is a different kind of value in knowing where people are in the office.
"While we are still working out the privacy and ethical concerns, we would like to use the location data that could be gathered by our application to leverage other aspects of a smart office," he explains. "For example, if we gather the location data of all our employees, we can identify high and low traffic areas. That data could then be used to inform climate/lighting controls for specific areas, resulting in a more ‘green’ office."
Having actual data on traffic areas around the office could also lead to improvements in furniture and desk layouts. It’s an extensible list of small tweaks and design decisions that could be made based on where people actually move around at work.