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LIFE

Every step you take: how Bluetooth beacons will change your life at work, rest and play

Bluetooth beacons that can track movement and relay messages to your smartphone are being embedded into the world around us

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 5:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 5:32am

Mention the word "Bluetooth" and wireless headphones and keyboards immediately spring to mind. But the technology is so wide-reaching these days its applications may be a lot more prevalent than we think.

Bluetooth beacons are a case in point. These low-powered, low-cost devices with a very long battery life are now being embedded into the world around us - from the walls of offices and train stations to airports, sports stadiums, shopping malls and even placed on the shelves of stores - and they are spreading fast.

Beacons make the web a physical entity. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, they cost about HK$150 each, and do nothing more than broadcast a short-range Bluetooth radio signal.

Your phone - and virtually every phone in circulation - reads that Bluetooth signal, calculating its strength to determine down to a metre or so how far away it is.

"Beacons broadcast about three times per second," says Trevor Longino of Kontakt.io, one of a handful of beacon-makers and which has offices in Shenzhen.

"They're small, last for a relatively long time, and are capable of relaying a unique piece of information constantly, and in a manner that's usable by virtually every smart device produced in the past three to four years. As such, they give a context to the real world that's readily available to almost anyone."

Since each beacon has a circular reach, your phone can tune in to several Bluetooth signals simultaneously and use simple trigonometry to work out exactly where it is. Put those beacons in a shopping mall, an airport, a university or an office and you've got highly accurate indoor mapping that can work on several levels or floors.

And as well as you reading the map, the map will also be reading you.

In recent years, beacons have often been talked about as a tool for advertising. The premise is simple; as you walk past a particular store, a beacon sends your phone a voucher, or an advert about a promotion. The same can happen in the store if you linger next to an item.

This was tested last year in Hong Kong, where mobile network SmarTone launched its ST Beacon marketing service for retailers and RED Pass holders.

Stores that signed up (including Red Ant restaurants and Ant One casual dining, Oliver's Super Sandwiches, Espressamente Illy and Cova) could send promotional messages to customers using an Android or iOS device with Bluetooth activated.

Although the theory is that such a "virtual shopping assistant" will be useful to all of us, it could also be highly irritating, and convince many of us to switch off Bluetooth, the lifeblood of this technology.

It's perhaps because of publicised examples such as these that beacons haven't yet excited anyone, though the proximity technology they're capable of has the potential to reach far into our digital lives.

For example, by studying where you go, how long you stay and who else is with you, you could be accurately billed for the exact time you spent using a karaoke booth, a gym, or a golf driving range. Or you could be accurately paid for the time you spent at work.

A store, an MTR station or your employer could record exactly when and how often you visit, and how long you stay. A digital pattern of our behaviour will be created - and in real-time. That could have huge consequences for efficiency, productivity and privacy. Some won't see any of it as desirable.

However, as usual with technology, the more privacy you surrender, the greater the benefits can be. That could even apply to the smart home. Imagine a multiroom music system that followed you around, fading music in and out of rooms as you passed through.

Beacons can work intelligently with several phones at once, so if your partner stayed in the living room while you walked upstairs, the music could follow you while also remaining on in the room you just left.

That technology will soon appear in high-end hotel rooms, along with beacon-powered keyless door entry, and beacons that let hotel staff know when you've left your room, so they can go in and clean without disturbing you. The boss could even tell exactly how long the cleaners were in the room.

At their heart, beacons are about efficiency, and this is a technology that is likely to first appear in public spaces to provide location-relevant information to reduce congestion and bottlenecks.

Beacon trials are under way across the globe, including in Hong Kong International Airport by SITA Lab, where passengers are being guided by 50 beacons in Terminal 1. After downloading an app to their phone or tablet (something that will soon be unnecessary thanks to Google's adoption of beacons) passengers get indoor directions, walk times to gates and boarding alerts.

All of this is powered by beacons placed in strategic places such as check-in counters, immigration, on the automated people movers, at boarding/arrival gates, and throughout baggage claim areas.

Not only do passengers know exactly where they are and how long it will take them to get to the gate, but the airline also knows where they are. If everyone used the app - and that's by no means a given - airlines will no longer have to put requests out on the loudspeaker system for passengers that are yet to board.

However, the best part comes at the other end of the journey, when passengers get an alert on their phone that tells them exactly which carousel to go to to collect their luggage.

They're small, last for a relatively long time, and are capable of relaying a unique piece of information constantly
Trevor Longino, Kontakt.io

It's technically possible to put a beacon in your own luggage, which would send a message to your phone when it was within 30 metres. Either way, staring hopefully down the carousel will become a thing of the past.

"Hong Kong International Airport puts huge emphasis on the passenger experience," says Ilya Gutlin, SITA president, Asia-Pacific. "Beacon technology is a win-win for passengers, airlines and airports - knowing where you are and how long it will take to get to the next stage of your journey makes the experience much more relaxing."

Expect the same thing to happen in museums, where beacon technology designed to help visually impaired people navigate is now offering virtual tours to anyone with a phone.

Beacons are also set to revolutionise public transport. Five hundred buses in London have been fitted with beacons to send targeted messages to commuters. The pilot is funded by an advertising agency, so for now the messages will be "proximity marketing services".

This is likely to be how the global network of beacons will initially be funded, although once the hardware is in, expect services from the bus companies themselves that will send a message to your phone when the bus/train/taxi is about to reach your stop.

With fleets of beacons installed in our cities, the physical web is coming to get you.