Tech talk: Beacon technology

“Think about it as a very small lighthouse…”This description, used by beacon manufacturer Estimote, is a good way to sum up the technology – helpfully concise in a field where more specialised terms, such as “geo-fencing”, abound.

More specifically, beacons are tiny transmitters, about the size of a coin, that use Bluetooth low energy (BLE) proximity-sensing to send a signal that can be picked up by a compatible app and operating system. The beacons transmit their signal over three ranges: immediate (within a few centimetres); near (a couple of metres); and far (up to 70 metres).

A beacon can tell when a smart-device user with the relevant software has entered a region and, once that has been established, can send that device messages and prompts. Beacon technology is already being played with in the retail world.

Supermarkets, for example, are trialling the targeting of offers the moment a shopper steps in the vicinity of, say, a packet of cereal.  One advantage of BLE over GPS technology is that beacons can pinpoint users down to a distance of centimetres.

The travel industry is not far behind, with Virgin Atlantic testing beacons at Heathrow, using Apple’s iBeacon technology and beacons sourced from Estimote as transmitters. These can alert iOS-device users with information pertinent to their flight, or of promotions from nearby businesses. For example, passengers in the security channel may be prompted to open their electronic boarding pass, or may receive offers of commission deals at nearby forex booths. The trial is ongoing.

Easyjet, meanwhile, has been trialling beacons in three airports – Luton, Gatwick and Paris Charles de Gaulle – this summer. Notifications reminded passengers as they approached bag-drop and security to open their boarding pass at the right time. The airline may roll this out permanently, pending analysis of the results.

Cheaper than chips

Charlie Makin, from digital agency Burn The Sky, says his company is working on iBeacon trials. “There are many positives: they are cheap – about £60 for a set of three – and because they use Bluetooth they work on a range of devices, unlike near field communication, which requires a chip.”

However, he argues there are limitations, as you can only access the information via a companion app, and there are also concerns about data privacy. “It strikes me as a summer stunt rather than a real customer benefit,” he adds.

John Finlayson is travel industry manager at m-commerce platform, Weve. He says: “The benefit for companies that service travellers – especially business travellers – is the ability to notify, identify and track passengers: telling them to activate mobile boarding passes, for example, or alerting them to the correct baggage reclaim area. However, our tests found each handset, and each beacon, have slightly different variances in their sensitivity – so having a consistent experience for end users is hard to achieve.”

Paul Richer, senior partner at technology consultancy Genesys, says: “Beacons would work well providing visitor information around tourist attractions, museums and other areas where navigational complexity requires thought and micro-location-specific information provision.” He argues beacon technology is actually of more use to an infrequent traveller visiting new venues, than to a business traveller who tends to be familiar with his or her surroundings.

Business exclusivity

Another potential for beacon technology would be for an airline app to recognise that you’re a business flier and, as you walk up to Starbucks, for example, the app will hear from a nearby beacon and pop up an exclusive voucher for a free coffee. Or, if a flight is delayed, vouchers could be quickly enabled for business users to rebook.

Personalising the passenger’s journey is the name of game. For now, it is luxury-end passengers who will likely benefit, as they are the ones the technology is being tested on – but who knows where beacon technology could lead?

As Reuben Arnold, brand and customer engagement director at Virgin Atlantic, says: “We’ve only skimmed the surface on the advantages that this technology can offer our customers.”

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