What Are “Nearables,” And Why Is Ideo So Excited About Them?

Bluetooth beacons enter a new interactive frontier with Estimote’s sticker-size hardware


Last week beacon technology–sensors which can trigger actions in devices that come within range, increasing their spatial intelligence–shrank in size and grew in opportunity with the introduction of Estimote Stickers. Three millimeter-thick adhesives no bigger than an oversize postage stamp, the nearly weightless Stickers–dubbed “nearables”–are an impressive evolution of the egg-sized Beacons that Estimote introduced in 2013.


“Beacons are a little bit like URLs for the physical world,” says Steve Cheney, cofounder and senior vice president. “We don’t know exactly how it’s all going to work out, from the experience level, but I think the apps you use the most will start to integrate beacon technology in a way where you assume it was always that way.” Like the larger Beacons, Estimote’s Sticker-sensors, set to ship this fall to curious developers and companies eager to take advantage of the internet of things, help apps “see” their surroundings via motion and temperature sensors that communicate with nearby devices via Bluetooth.

Possible applications range from prosaic to Jetsons-esque. When entering a movie theater, for example, beacons could automatically silence your phone. Place beacons around your home, and LaunchHere, a self-described shortcut app, promises to launch appropriate apps as you move from your coffee maker (start brewing) to your sofa (turn on Apple TV). Retailers like Macy’s are already testing the waters, sending shoppers discounts specific to the department where they’re browsing.

The design firm Ideo, which also happens to be an Estimote partner, has been experimenting with the hardware, imagining scenarios for settings as varied as museum galleries and hospital wards. Co.Design caught up with Joe Rizk, who oversees Ideo’s partnerships with early-stage companies in New York, in order to find out why the design firm is investing time and resources in imagining a world rife with “nearables,” the Estimote-trademarked term that Cheney hopes will catch on.

The challenge, Rizk says, is how to “create a space that comes to life without altering or manipulating the space itself.” Rizk is optimistic about Estimote Stickers, and their ability to add convenience, functionality, and interactivity–what he calls “texture”–for three reasons.

1. They leverage the hardware in your pocket.
“In one of the cases that we designed for, it was a museum space,” Rizk says, describing a scenario in which beacons were placed throughout an exhibit. By tying the sensors to your personal smartphone, rather than an audiovisual guide that you might rent for the afternoon, “we can suggest different content that brings [the experience] to life in a different way.” That layer of texture, even as simple as tailoring content to first-time versus regular visitors, “is quite significant.”


2. They’re passive, for the end user.
For users weary of updating apps and navigating notification settings, beacon technology is refreshingly low-maintenance. Experiences can “come to life without you having to manually do anything,” he says. No more customer surveys, no more inputting preferences: beacon data has the potential to cut those corners. “For us as designers, the idea that you can make something cumbersome more seamless is really exciting.”

3. They’re lightweight, in more ways than one.
Size matters, a truism that holds particular sway in the technology world. Estimote’s Stickers are both physically lightweight, which makes it possible to attach them to moving objects (for example, purses on display in a department store), and metaphorically lightweight to purchase and install. “It helps us be more nimble when we’re testing and prototyping,” Rizk says. “It doesn’t require us to rip up floorboards or tear out the walls.” Ideo has even started tinkering with the idea of designing a self-guided tour of its offices for clients and other visitors, using the sensors.

As for Estimote, Cheney says his startup is talking with airlines, retailers, and more about adding that layer of “texture” to customer experiences. Whether you notice them or not, these bite-sized beacons are likely headed your way.

About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.