iBeacons: Marvel or Menace?

Has the grid gap closed even further?

You may have heard the term “Internet of Things,” which is the idea of having a seamlessly connected, “smart” environment. In this imagined world, physical objects—not just computers— participate in virtual information transfer and operate on a digital network. It sounds like science fiction, but innovative technologies like Apple’s new iBeacons are quickly making the “Internet of Things” a reality.

Beacons are small transmitters that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to send information to devices within a range of two inches to 50 yards. Beacons are location-based without using GPS, which is decidedly less specific and reliable, especially in an indoor setting. Apple quietly unveiled iBeacon systems in 2013, including an iBeacon app in the latest iOS 7 update and installing iBeacons in 250 Apple stores.

Professional sporting companies quickly took notice of transmitter beacon potential. Major League Baseball is installing the technology in several stadiums beginning in March, and the National Football League implemented beacon technology just in time for the Super Bowl this year, with app subscribers getting direct notifications in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium as well as at several locations in Manhattan.

The marketing potential with iBeacons is directly in line with recent trends that aim to customize promotions based on information gathered about the consumer. iBeacons are already being used in retail and grocery stores, including Macy’s and Safeway.

The unveiling of iBeacons comes at a time when privacy of personal information is a growing concern, and high-profile computer security breaches have some consumers wary of predictive and personalized tech trends. For some, the concept of iBeacons might conjure up fears of intrusive pop-ups.

However, most current beacon communication requires installation of specific apps and acceptance of certain permissions. Additionally, BLE can only transmit small amounts of data, and developers are already wary of annoying customers and losing subscribers by bombarding their phones.

On the other hand, iBeacons could be enormously helpful and informative for consumers, from automating check-ins and ticketing lines to giving specific indoor directions in often-disorienting places like stadiums, museums and malls. Though still in its infancy, beacon technology and its innumerable possibilities might just be the next digital frontier.

—Lindsey Kennedy