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Apple’s iBeacons Are Going To Transform Much More Than Advertising

Startups are betting that Apple’s micro-location technology can improve everything from dating to your pet collar.

Apple’s iBeacons Are Going To Transform Much More Than Advertising
[Happy Young Couple and Golden Retriever via Shutterstock]

Apple’s iBeacons will be a boon to retailers who want to target their in-store customers with advertisements and special deals. But while the technology has generated a lot of excitement in the retail industry, it’s understandably not caught the imagination of consumers, who generally aren’t thrilled about the new ways they’ll be marketed to in the future.

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Yet, as I discovered, in-store advertising is just one use of iBeacon technology. Innovative developers are applying Apple’s iBeacons to improve our social lives, make our smartphones more intuitive, and save us money on electric bills.

How iBeacons Work

iBeacons are Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth beacon technology. A Bluetooth beacon is simply a low-energy chip enclosed in a small plastic housing. The beacon can only send data–not receive it–and is generally used to just broadcasts micro-location coordinates (in a radius as small as 10 centimeters) to your iPhone.

Because iBeacons can only send data, they have no way of controlling anything on your phone. The technology relies on apps collecting the data from an iBeacon and using it to do something. In the case of retailers, a store may place an iBeacon on a specific endcap with the newest television on it. The store’s app on your iPhone will then receive the location data from the iBeacon and pull up a discount coupon or more specs about the TV (hoping that doing so will prompt you to buy it).

There’s a big misconception that iBeacons only work with iOS devices. In fact, an iBeacon can talk to Android and other smartphones as well. But while iBeacons can be picked up by other smartphones, Apple’s technology has an iOS-only feature: Any iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch can also become an iBeacon itself. And this is how some clever developers are discovering that iBeacons are good for a lot more than just selling you stuff.

iBeacons For Dating

“Our goal is to use technology to encourage people to be more social, in real life,” says Joel Ayala, cofounder of Mingleton, when I talk to him about the way he’s turning Apple’s retail tech into a dating service. Mingleton uses the iOS-only feature of iBeacons. Installing the app on your iPhone turns it into an iBeacons transmitter. The app then broadcasts your profile out to other Mingleton users within a 50-meter radius. When another Mingleton user taps “See Who’s Nearby” in the app your iPhones–both acting as iBeacons–ping a unique beacon identifier linked to your Mingleton profiles.

“Part of the problem is that it is not always clear who wants to socialize,” says Ayala. “We have always been bemused by how little we like-minded concertgoers mingle before each set begins. This is why we came up with the idea to allow people in the same space to anonymously find out who wants to meet and to make it easy for people to discover their commonalities so they are more likely to want to socialize.”

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Mingleton uses the Facebook Graph API to see your mutual friends and interests and decide on whether or not to make the introduction. “If– and only if–you both express interest in mingling, we let you both know,” Ayala says. “If it’s a match, the two of you may now message each other and will hopefully mingle in person.”

It’s similar to Tinder, but much more location-specific thanks to iBeacons technology. Where Tinder uses Wi-Fi location data and GPS signals to lock your range down to a mile or so radius, iBeacons allows Mingleton to accomplish location-based discovery for individuals in the same room.

iBeacons For Automating Your Apps

Launch Here uses iBeacons to make your home more aware. The iPhone app enables users to link apps with specific places in their home.

“It started as an experiment,” says Bernd Plontsch, cofounder of Aww Apps, who makes Launch Here. “Taking a look around our homes we found that most rooms and objects serve very distinct purposes. The closer you get to a specific spot in a room the more probable it gets that it is related to your current intent or context. Then, looking at our phones we realized that we already use numerous apps covering activities related to those very contexts. With Launch Here we simply link those two worlds together by helping you to launch these apps from your lock screen quickly at the right place.”

If an iBeacon is placed by your couch in your living room, for example, Launch Here can guess that your intent might be to use your Apple TV, so it brings up Apple’s Remote app without you having to search for it. Place an iBeacon at your desk, and when you sit down at it the Launch Here app can then pull up your favorite office productivity app on your iPad.

“For some people Launch Here works simply as a little daily time saver,” says Plontsch. “For others it makes using apps as a whole more accessible by showing them relevant apps in the right situation without the need to actively remind them of such fitting choices.”

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iBeacons For Controlling Your Home

The usefulness of iBeacons in the home grows exponentially if all your devices have beacons integrated into them. If, for example, your lamps and your oven and your coffee maker all had an iBeacon inside, those devices could then guess your intention as you approach them: The lamps could turn on; the oven could begin to warm; the coffee maker could start brewing.

Integrating iBeacons into every home appliance is still a long way off, but for now there’s a company called Zuli that is turning our boring, dumb devices into smart iBeacon transmitters. The company makes the Zuli Smartplug–essentially an adapter for a normal electrical outlet that contains an iBeacon. Once connected to an appliance like a lamp or a coffee maker, the plug uses its iBeacon to transmit its identity to the Zuli app, which in turn automates the specific actions you’ve preconfigured.

The Zuli Smartplug uses an iBeacon to make your dumb device smarter.

“When you think about the direction the smart home is headed in, we now have the ability to connect almost every device to our smartphones, but yet we still haven’t solved the user experience side of it,” says Sid Bhargava, founder of Zuli. “Using a connected light switch as an example, it’s almost easier to just get up and turn on the light than it is to pull out your phone, unlock it, and then open the relevant app.”

Zuli, if fully implemented, could adjust your lighting ambience, temperature, and music simply by you walking into a room. It can also make that room more energy efficient by detecting when it’s unoccupied for 10 minutes and shutting down unused devices.

iBeacons For Hacking

All of these implementations of iBeacons require the user to have transmitters in their location. Mingleton accomplishes its task by turning your iPhone itself into an iBeacon. Zuli does it by integrating an iBeacon into its smart plug.

But what of Launch Here? While it could interact with an iOS device acting as a beacon, it’s an app that requires stationary iBeacons to be placed around the home. Thankfully there’s a company called Estimote that sells a $99 development kit with three Estimote Beacons (which are iBeacon-approved). The company also sells a dev kit with 10 Sticker Beacons, which are small iBeacons it created that allows you to affix them to non-stationary objects like a dog’s collar.

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A full-sized Estimote Beacon. Inside the beacon housing is a Bluetooth chip and small battery.

Affixing an expensive iBeacon to a dog’s collar might sound a bit over the top, but what if that collar could then auto-unlock a doggie door as your dog approached it?

“Honestly there are thousands of use cases for beacons that have not yet been even discovered,” says Steve Cheney, cofounder of Estimote. “Imagine if a beacon knew you were in the living room and your smart set-top box changed the content on your television based on your preferences or the video you were streaming on your iPhone before you walked in the room?”

Indeed, the imagination of developers seems to be the only limit of what iBeacons can enable outside of the retail space.

“The beauty of iBeacon is that it’s up to developers and product designers on what to build. Just as the original people who conceived GPS could never have imagined an Uber arriving to your door and becoming a killer service for GPS, people can’t yet fully grasp what iBeacons will enable,” says Cheney. “I think the broader community is only now really grasping the types of experiences that can be built.”

And those iBeacons experiences, thankfully, go much further than retail.