How Beacons Will Transform Your Office

Confusion and ignorance about beacons is stunningly widespread, even in technology circles.

In my informal polling of family, friends, colleagues, marketing professionals and technologists, I’ve discovered that far too many people don’t understand what beacons are. And if they do, they don’t know how beacons work. And if they do, they can’t imagine what they’ll be used for.

So let’s fix that. I’m also going to tell you how beacons will transform the workplace—and much sooner than you think.

What are beacons?

Beacons are small, inexpensive devices (costing between $5 and $30 each) that transmit tiny amounts of data via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) up to 50 meters. (One company called ShopX is giving a million beacons free to retailers.) They can be powered by tiny batteries, or they can be plugged into an outlet or USB port. Phones, tablets and PCs can function as beacons.

Beacons are often called an indoor location technology, but they can be used outside as well. They simply enable more accurate location than GPS, cell tower triangulation or WiFi proximity.

Here’s a simple, practical example: When you’re in a restaurant and want to access a location-based social network, you’re currently presented with a list of restaurants in the area because GPS and other methods aren’t accurate enough to know for sure where you’re dining. With beacons, your phone will know your restaurant.

How do beacons work?

One misconception about beacons is that they detect nearby smartphones, and then report back to some server that the smartphone user was near that beacon.

In reality, beacons have no ability to receive or collect data. They simply transmit very simple identifying information. It’s up to the smartphone to receive the transmission (using an app or feature designed to do that) and pass that along to a cloud server. The beacon basically tells your phone: “I’m this specific, unique beacon.” An app on your phone can look up that beacon online and learn that it is located at a very specific place in Dodger Stadium.

However, it won’t work if the user has Bluetooth turned off, has the app turned off or has not granted app permissions for beacon location features. And it won’t work if the owner of the beacon has not made the details about its location available to the public or to the app a person is using. In other words, the use of beacons is possible only as a voluntary communication between whoever owns the beacon and whoever owns the smartphone.

It’s possible to estimate distance from a beacon by gauging relative signal strength and to estimate exact location by beacon triangulation. But neither of these methods is currently reliable enough for perfect location pinpointing.

What will beacons be used for?

Beacons are already used for retail marketing. The beacons tell a store’s app to display special offers for—or additional information about—the merchandise the customer is standing near. Apple does this using its own iBeacons system, and department stores also are rolling this kind of application.

Stadiums and museums are using beacons to guide visitors around and direct them to their seats or to food. They also use them to inform visitors about the objects around them.

Facebook last month began testing a new service called “Place Tips” in New York City. The company installed its proprietary beacons at the Strand Book Store, The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien Hotel and the Dominique Ansel Bakery (famous for inventing the cronut).

The initial purpose of “Place Tips” is to show Facebook users what their Facebook friends thought about whatever location they’re currently visiting. Beacons are used at some, but not all, the “Place Tips” locations.

How will beacons transform the workplace?

Workplaces will be transformed in the same way that homes are changed by the home automation revolution. In general, beacon technology will enable offices to work much more efficiently and cost-effectively.