iBeacons, what are they good for?

When I initially heard about iBeacons, I was excited about the possibilities. But as I learned more about the iBeacon spec, and how the iPhone is allowed to use it, I realized it’s not exactly what I thought.

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The biggest misconception I had was that iBeacons were going to allow precise indoor location tracking, “micro-location”, something like a GPS system. Not true. While the iBeacon API is found in the Core Location library (as opposed to Core Bluetooth), it’s because a beacon is a region that the iPhone passes in and out of, just like a geofenced region. There are no built-in tools to setup a coordinate system.

Not that people haven’t tried using iBeacons as a positioning system. Results have been mixed, mostly because the Bluetooth radio signal is easily weakened when traveling through objects, particularly the human body. Precise indoor positioning just isn’t possible.

So if iBeacons aren’t for micro-location, what are they good for? If you follow iBeacon news, there seems to be only 2 applications anyone can come up with: pushing coupons in retail stores and museum tours. I’m not kidding about the museum thing.

Since iBeacon was launched, I have seen only 2 interesting uses, both from Apple: First, the ability to configure AppleTV by tapping your iPhone on it.

And AirDrop, which uses iBeacons to find the devices, then creates a temporary WiFi network to transfer the data. (I’ve read other articles that say AirDrop uses iBeacons, however @IfMatt has investigated and sees BLE used, but not iBeacons specifically)

That got me thinking, everyone is imagining iBeacons as dumb devices, basically a glorified QR code, to trigger your iPhone into action based on proximity. But what about using iBeacons like Apple did, as a way to find and connect devices to communicate?

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Example, I have a Sony NEX camera I use occasionally when I need more quality and control than the iPhone 5 camera can provide. However I do almost all my photo editing and sharing on my iPhone and iPad. The NEX has a companion app that allows me to transfer photos to my iPhone, but it’s a super clunky, multi-step process that involves having to connect the iPhone to a wifi network created by the camera.

In fact, it’s such a hassle, that I just put the SD card into my Windows desktop, transfer the photos into Dropbox (round trip to internet), and download them (one by one) from the Dropbox app on to my camera roll!

Here’s what should happen: I open VSCO Cam (not a specialized app from Sony) on my iPhone, and the prompt to open a photo includes not only my local photo libraries, but the NEX, looking just like a folder of photos. VSCO Cam would see an iBeacon broadcast from the NEX indicating that it is a device that has photos.

In fact, any app that could open a photo would automatically detect photo iBeacons. Any device that has photos (cameras, other iPhones and iPads, Macs, external harddrives) could broadcast the same iBeacon ID.

I realize I’m glossing over an important technical detail: the actual transfer of data. iBeacon is not a data transfer protocol. It would just be a way for devices to find each other. There would have to be an agreed upon secure standard tied to that iBeacon ID. Perhaps something along the lines of devices being “iBeacon Compatible”, similar to “Made for iPhone“.

This could go beyond photos, video, and audio. Tap to configure devices, like Apple did with AppleTV. Structured data, like data from your car, could be imported into different apps (insurance, maintenance, mileage tracking, spreadsheet).

And not just import, but export at well. How about a Time Capsule external hard drive that I tap with my iPhone and all my photos are automatically backed-up whenever I’m home?

Right now we’re thinking about iBeacons tied to specific apps. But using iBeacons to represent services across several apps is much more useful.

Do you have any iBeacon ideas? Let’s chat.

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