Not every new and innovative thing in the tech scene comes in a package as attractive as a slick smartphone. Some things are a harder sell. Like iBeacons.
One year after Apple’s tracking and proximity tech launched with iOS 7, a clear, game-changing use case has yet to emerge. That may change with additions to Core Motion in iOS 8 and the increasing importance of the M7 coprocessor inside most iPhones and iPads.
But for now, the best way to figure out the utility of iBeacons may be to experiment on interns. Chaotic Moon, a dev shop in Austin, Texas, did just that—they built an intern-tracking system. (Yeah, these are the same guys that tased an intern from a drone during SXSW this year. How they keep getting interns we don't know.)
Chaotic Moon employs interns of two stripes: engineering interns who help with development, and general purpose gophers.
"Those people, they're not as well trained as my engineering staff, but they're not always on their computers and they're not always available, we can't always reach them via Hipchat," says Chaotic Moon’s VP of Technology, C.K. Sample, describing a scenario where the studio might need a particular intern. "And it's hard to track him down because he's on a couch in a corner somewhere hiding."
To that end, Chaotic Moon built Gopher Tracker: a network of iBeacons set up in strategic areas throughout the office. When synced with interns’ smartphones, Gopher Tracker would let management know exactly where the interns were and allow them to send the misplaced intern a message.
"Typically when we do projects like this, they're just internal, for fun," says Sample. "But sometimes we'll repurpose it for something that we pitch to a client. For example, this, given that it's all about locating where people are in an office space and around town, I think it has many applications in retail—it's one of the heavy places where iBeacon has been used in order to locate things in a store. But with this you can use it to monitor your staff working in a retail place."
Sample is right in implying that iBeacon’s most prominent use case has been among retailers: From Apple’s own stores to grocery stores and Macy’s, there hasn’t been a remarkable variety of applications for the tracking technology. As we’ve noted before, this might be a problem: The more superfluously implemented iBeacons are, the less of a chance they have to catch on and be put toward any truly useful ends. But Sample isn’t worried: He just thinks that people haven’t started to think big enough yet.
"People tend to—when they hear something like [iBeacons] they think 'oh, so it's more precise than GPS inside a building.' And they don't really get what that means," says Sample. "Because most people are really familiar with GPS at this point and they think it's really accurate… GPS is kind of—it's the general area, but it's not as precise as iBeacons. It could enhance all kinds of mapping, all kinds of directions, all kinds of experiences where you need to find exactly where something is."
Sample cites a number of areas that could be improved using iBeacons: anything that involves mapping or tracking, timecards for hourly employees, mesh networks, and general workplace management. The developers of the world just need to start playing with it more—this is, after all, coming from the same people who, after getting Google Glass, promptly hacked it to launch a rocket.
"The more that clients like ours start to think about ways to leverage iBeacons and actually build them into their applications and build functionality that makes people's lives easier into what they're doing, then consumers will adopt it," he says.