Two large banners greet patrons when they walk into Orlando Public Library.
Amid posters about the library’s family-friendly services and upcoming programming, the banners urge patrons to do something a bit uncharacteristic for a nearly 100-year-old institution: download an iBeacon app.
In November, the library implemented BluuBeam, an Orlando-based service that uses iBeacon technology to send location-triggered information to patrons. Visitors who download the app get an alert about library offers and events. So, for example, if you’re searching the third floor stacks for a Julia Child cookbook, you’ll receive a message about the library’s Cuisine Corner program that features cooking demos by local chefs.
Debbie Moss, assistant director of the Orange County Library System in Orlando, says the library wanted an innovative way to inform patrons about services that matched their interests.
"It’s like a little virtual tap on the shoulder," she says.
When Apple launched iBeacon last year, experts said it would transform the retail industry. But while companies have used iBeacons to sell everything from currency exchange at airports to designer handbags at Macy's, some startups are using the technology to help libraries and museums innovate. BluuBeam and Capira Technologies, a New York company that also provides location-based services, are helping libraries develop better experiences for their patrons. Boston-based startup Spotzer has used the technology in museums to reinvent the way people interact with art.
"This particular technology really ties together what makes libraries and museums so valuable to the world. They’re an indelible, invaluable physical venue for knowledge," says Brendan Ciecko, CEO and founder of Spotzer.
The new tech arrives at a tranistional time for cultural institutions. As technology has advanced, it’s changed why people visit libraries and museums. In the wake of the Great Recession, just as many people used libraries for free computer and Internet access as they did to borrow books. Experts at these companies say beacon technology could help these libraries and museums remind people of their importance in the community and showcase the wide range of services and resources they offer. But first, they must convince patrons to download an app that tracks their location.
Spotzer, which launched in early 2014, has worked with the Neue Galerie in New York and the Boston Atheneaum, one of the oldest independent libraries and cultural institutions in the country. After a museum visitor downloads the app, it pulls up information as the person walks up to work of art. It also can learn the person’s preferences to serve a more personalized experience as he or she walks toward another collection. Ciecko says museums can use Spotzer to add a new layer of proximity and contextual awareness to their physical space.
"Museums are spending too much money or they’re relying on obsolete technology to produce multimedia experiences," Ciecko argues. "Our vision for all of this is to connect the real-world experience of going through a museum with a digital experience."
Chris Zabaleta, who founded BluuBeam in 2014, says he wanted to build a tool that helped people better engage with libraries. He has signed up 30 libraries for the service, including the Fayetteville Free Library in upstate New York and another in Topeka, Kansas.
BluuBeam’s technology includes beams—lightweight, hockey puck-sized iBeacons—that libraries strategically place in different locations. The Orange County Public Library System has 25 beams throughout three branches. Zabaleta says 30 libraries are using the technology to enhance their current offerings. One library used a beam to trigger an alert of new movie releases for that day. Others have advertised free computer workshops and book sales. The service is completely anonymous and doesn’t collect users’ personal information, though BluuBeam does track how many times a beacon has pushed a message, Zabaleta says.
"What iBeacons need to provide, so that people are more comfortable with them, is an augmented reality kind of environment," he says. "Once you start getting any sort of personal information, 90% of people will be weirded out by it."
Other companies, however, have taken a more personalized approach. Capira Technologies just began a pilot program in early December with two of its 100 library clients. It sends users reminders about overdue books and items available for pick-up as soon as they enter a participating library. Michael Berse, a managing member for Capira Technologies, says the service allows libraries with limited staff resources to provide more customer service.
"It’s just another way to really keep in touch with patrons," he says.
Berse says his company is considering partnering with nearby businesses, such as restaurants and train stations, so that patrons can get special messages and incentives inside and outside of the library.
"This isn’t an opt-out system; it’s an opt-in system," Berse says.
Capira Technologies, Spotzer and BluuBeam use varied pricing models—all charging the cultural institutions, not their visitors.
Moss, of the Orange County Public Library System, says some of her staff initially were skeptical about the technology’s potential, but now are enthusiastically experimenting. The library will run a promotion this month to get more people to download the app, Moss says.
That’s welcomed news for Zabaleta.
"iBeacons are not going anywhere," he says. "This is like the next GPS."