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Digital and physical worlds collide

Published on  13 June by Steve Statler , Writer, public speaker, and consultant working in the beacon ecosystem
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Bluetooth beacons are changing the customer experience at venues worldwide.  What do airports need to do?

It used to be that computers were locked up in metal boxes, hidden away in secure data centers. Now that computational power has escaped from those boxes - kids carry it in the pockets of their jeans.

The output from computers has spread to web-connected smartwatches, augmented reality headsets and 3D printers. What about the inputs?  Beyond the keyboard, now we have voice recognition, machine vision and the Bluetooth beacon. Beacons are a technology that is flying under the radar for most of the population, but they have at least the same disruptive potential as any of the others we have mentioned.

Beacons are simple. They have the ability to trigger actions in apps running on smartphones when those phones come into proximity with the beacon. Bluetooth beacons are like tiny wireless lighthouses. They broadcast signals that can help with map navigation indoors. They also trigger alerts that can wake up a mobile app that has been exited days before.  Beacon enabled apps, like zombies, can be brought back to life.  This ability makes the technology different to many other types of location or proximity trigger. Rather than creating a path of zombie destruction, they can be used to present a boarding pass, a welcome message, to open a door to a club lounge, or trigger a video describing a work of art that the airport has commissioned.

It used to be that Google and Apple maps stopped working once you went inside as GPS satellites can’t penetrate buildings. Now these tiny Bluetooth beacons can enable Google and Apple maps to operate with even better fidelity than outdoors.

The impact of digital to physical convergence

Bluetooth beacons are like tendons that link the muscle of the digital world to the bones of our brick and mortar buildings. They enable new “experiences” to be designed. Everything that Amazon could do on its web site can now be applied to the experience of visitors to physical locations, like airports. 

So what makes Amazon special? Personalization is key. Your Amazon home page will look different to mine. Beacons placed next to digital displays can trigger a personal welcome. Airport visitors might be freaked out if their airline app triggered a personal welcome on displays at the check-in desk, but relevant information to their phone would be useful. Personalization is only as good as the information about the visitor. Amazon understands your interests by analyzing your click-stream, your movements around its web site. Beacons are like digital cookies in the real world. They can sense if you are a returning visitor and can be used to track your foot path around stores (rather than click-path) and your dwell time. 

Beacons can enable operational efficiencies too. Many beacons include a temperature sensor and can be used for better monitoring of room temperatures, adjusting HVAC for energy savings. Having a detailed view of where passengers are in the terminal has the potential to provide better ways of getting them in their seats on time. 

While plenty of airports from Miami, San Diego, Chicago and Schiphol are already deploying beacons, they are also being deployed in other locations, from London buses, triggering reminders for people engrossed in a book that their stop is coming up, to choreographing welcome messages to visitors to the Apple store, or information for industry conference goers as to the LinkedIn profile of the other folks in a breakout session. 

Is this real?

Part of high tech innovation is fads that don’t fly. Are beacons here to stay?  Is it worth our time planning to use them for our airport? Yes, it’s worth it. Over three hundred companies are betting the answer is yes. One of them is Apple, who created the iBeacon standard that enables their phones and another is Google, who have leapfrogged Apple with their own standard, Eddystone (named after the first offshore lighthouse). Google have integrated beacons into Android, Maps, the Chrome browser, and their personal assistant app. ABI, one of the leading technology analysts, predicts that we will see over 300 million beacons deployed by 2020. Gartner predict even more.

At Google’s recent developer conference, they announced that Android will look for the presence of beacons and prompt users to download the corresponding app that has been registered to use beacons which are in the vicinity. This could be a powerful answer to the airport’s challenge of how to get passengers to download their apps.

What to do?

When writing the book “Beacon Technologies: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem”, my aim was to create a survival guide for developers of beacon solutions trying to master the Rubik's Cube of technology selection, design, deployment, management, privacy and monetization.  We looked in detail at what SITA has done to create one of the world’s first Beacon Networks with the SITA Common Use Beacon Registry. SITA has done a great job of considering the myriad uses of beacons and creating a system to manage these devices. SITA maintains the information needed to make beacons useful. For example, the feeds from its other systems are integrated so that a beacon by a gate doesn’t just announce its ID, but unlocks information about the status of the plane that is arriving there. By having standard interfaces that all the stakeholders can use to leverage these system, apps that work in one airport are well positioned to work in other airports. This is essential if passengers are to have the indoor location features of their airline’s apps work in Dallas and Miami. 

Power and inevitability

Like matter and anti-mater coming together, the convergence between our physical and digital worlds is unlocking great power. Given the use of smartphones by travelers and the investment in apps by travel providers, the question isn’t whether this is going to happen, it’s whether we will manage the unlocking of this energy so that the outcome is positive. SITA has done a lot to create a framework which will provide a foundation to do that. Over a dozen leading airports have already deployed its system. If the industry can align around it, there is every opportunity for this part of the rapidly changing landscape to be a positive one.

Read the full article in the upcoming issue of Air Transport IT Review.

Steve Statler is a writer, public speaker, and consultant working in the beacon ecosystem. He trains and advises airports, retailers, VCs, as well as makers of beacon software and hardware. He has also consulted for San Diego International Airport to create their successful carbon offsetting program The Good Traveler.

His book - Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem www.hhgb.us is available from Amazon http://amzn.com/1484218884.

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