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January 22, 2014
Demystifying the iBeacon Story
By: Marjan Baghaie

With the recent announcement of Apple rolling out iBeacon technology to all its 256 retail stores, the internet is abuzz with stories about the beacons, what they are and what it could mean for retail.

A few months back, we received two Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon development kits from Estimote, a hardware startup and winner of the Disrupt SF hardware award. We have been experimenting with these beacons for the past few months and have recently completed a demo that employs indoor micro-location capabilities using these tiny transmitters. This post answers some frequently asked questions, based on our experience so far:

What are BLE beacons? BLE beacons are small, wireless, battery operated devices that enable a more sophisticated interaction between users’ mobile devices and their physical surrounding. While GPS signals fail to give a user’s precise indoor location, beacons can provide a clearer understanding of where a person is located indoors. For example, a beacon can help a grocery retailer identify whether a customer is shopping in the dairy section or produce aisle. This knowledge can then help the retailer provide useful and personalized messaging to the customer in real-time. The technology is compatible with various mobile devices including iOS devices with Bluetooth 4.0 (e.g. iPhone 4S and newer) and Android devices with Bluetooth 4.0 and Android 4.3 and later. The beacons themselves could be obtained from a variety of vendors. They can come in sizes as small as a button with a typical battery life of 2-5 years, depending on the hardware. Note that any compatible iOS 7 device can also be configured fairly easily to act as a beacon.

How do these beacons work? BLE beacons act as low-powered transmitters by broadcasting an ID that can automatically be detected by compatible mobile devices within close proximity. This distance can be adjusted from just a few inches to over 30 feet, depending on a company’s desired configuration. In contrast to the use of QR codes, where a user is required to pull out their device to launch an app and point at an unintelligible code, beacons require virtually no user involvement in order to trigger a message. With the help of an app, the mobile device sends the beacon ID (and possibly the user ID) to a cloud-based server. The server can then look up the identity and location of the user and provide relevant content to the user’s mobile device. This functionality can be integrated with a company’s own existing app and backend to provide a familiar and personalized experience for their customers.

What are some example use-cases?

The interaction is frictionless and, as such, lends itself nicely to a variety of applications, from advertising and educational content to POS systems and mobile payment. Some examples include:

iBeacon

  • Our current demo: The use-case for our demo is a cross-channel promotion platform. The platform enables retailers to open up a new communication channel that bridges the gaps between the customers and manufacturers. It allows manufacturers to offer real-time promotions to customers at the point of decision. The platform measures the effectiveness of these promotions, and provides aggregate data and analytics to the manufacturers as well as the retailer. It provides a more personalized shopping experience by using existing shopping and social data to make relevant on-screen recommendations when a beacon is found. It also provides an additional revenue stream for retailers as the promotions are selected using an automated auctioning backend. This proof of concept is built for the grocery industry but very easily extends to other similar retail environments. Accenture Technology Labs has published a point-of-view and has a patent pending on this use-case. (See pictured.)

  • Passive data collection: The beacons can passively collect data on customers’ in-store movements, frequency of visits to aisles, time of day, day of week, movement patterns, etc

  • Providing contextual relevant information: Beacons can be used in a sports stadium to offer ticketholders a map to their particular seat. They can also be used in a museum to show videos, or provide notes about an art piece in different languages to various users on their phones, etc.

  • Reaching out to customers directly: Manufacturers (e.g. CPGs) can install their own beacons next to their stand in retail stores, malls, vending machines, gas stations, pubs, event venues, etc. to reach out and communicate with their customers (who have the manufacturers’ app installed) directly.

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, have been receiving a lot of media attention, especially in the retail sector. While it is too early to predict the long-lasting impact, the technology has already been embraced by a number of high profile companies such as Macy’s and Apple stores. The early use-cases seem promising as the technology opens up many possibilities for a new level of seamless interaction between a company and their customers.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about our demo and other projects at the Accenture Technology Labs, feel free to reach out by contacting marjan.baghaie@accenture.com.

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