Thursday, 9 October 2014

iBeacons in Retail Event, Presented by Academia - The Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, London, September 25th 2014

I attended an event in London recently, along with 50 or so other consultants, technologists and retailers, to explore the subject of iBeacons in Retail. The event was organised by Academia, a leading provider of IT equipment and services to the UK education sector.

Though the ultimate purpose of the event was to allow Academia and Atama to raise awareness of their new joint venture, BeaconSense, Academia also sees value in helping to build a community around the beacon ecosystem. Judging by the degree of networking going on during breaks and over lunch, it seems they've made a good start on this.

The event featured 5 presentations, which I'll attempt to summarise:

1) Welcome, introduction to Academia and BeaconSense: Jesse Westgate - Academia

We opened with an introduction to Academia. We were given an overview of their BeaconSense solution, which they describe as "...a suite of hardware and software solutions delivering location based advertising and information services to key markets such as Retail and Leisure industries using Bluetooth technology and customised mobile apps". The presentation was accompanied by a brochure for the service, and the information shared was at a high level (i.e. no screen shots or detailed use cases).

There was no discussion of existing clients or of reference implementations, but the involvement of Pivotal (more on this later) gives the venture access to serious Big Data capability, and the Atama beacon is shaping up to be a solid product so I will be watching with interest to see how BeaconSense develops.

2) iBeacon technology, insights & development by Eric Ferraz CEO – Atama

Atama's CEO introduced its new iBeacon product, which is at the advanced prototype stage having been up and running in their lab for the last couple of months.

The device runs on 4 AA batteries and has some interesting features, including time based power management and variable advertising intervals.

Commenting on the device's battery profile, Ferraz asked the question "does it matter if beacons are bigger"? Personally I'd say "yes", at least if you want them on a name tag or asset label, but agree that in the majority of use cases increased battery life over a low profile enclosure is likely to be a worthwhile trade off.

I found the device's management capabilities particularity interesting. Atama beacons participate in a mesh network, via a 6lowpan back channel. 6lowpan uses low frequencies at very low power, meaning that signals are not affected as much by environmental obstructions as higher frequency bluetooth transmissions. thereby giving longer effective range. Beacons within the mesh communicate with a bridge which in turn talks to a cloud based management service. Centralised remote management obviously simplifies set up and ongoing maintenance, and this definitely feels like the way to go. Atama are not alone in this space though, Kontakt's cloud beacon being the obvious competitor.

All things considered the Atama beacon seems like a flexible and capable device with a solid list of features, and I look forward to trialling it.

AltBeacon was mentioned in passing and Android support was briefly discussed, though as this was an iBeacon centric event with Apple in attendance there was little appetite to address the subject in detail.

3) Case Study by Jess Stephens CMO – Smart Focus

This presentation was the stand out for me, as Jess Stephens' company Tag Points (recently acquired by Smart Focus, of which Stephens is the Chief Marketing Officer) have real world experience of running a service to which iBeacon technology is integral.

Stephens gave a detailed overview of case studies involving the Swan Centre in Eastleigh, UK and The Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, UK. It was apparent in both cases that the engagement of mall ownership was instrumental in building a compelling offering that in turn drove customer engagement. Tag Points' case studies are available on-line, with another from Smart Focus to follow shortly; I strongly recommended checking these out if you're interested in a view from the trenches.

In terms of technology the Tag Points system is beacon agnostic, and supports both iOS and Android clients.

Stephens commented in passing that "Owning your own digital airspace" is likely to become increasingly important, akin to owning your internet domain name. This struck me as an interesting observation, and it's definitely worthy of further consideration.

4) Business Intelligence & Data Analysis by Chris Mills CTO – Pivotal

Pivotal is a provider of Big Data solutions, formed as a joint venture between EMC, VMWare and GE. Given its backers it seems logical to suspect the company is not short of resources and it's clearly able to engage with top-tier clients, so the fact that BeaconSense is able to offer insights derived via Pivotal has the potential to be an important differentiator.

Chris Mills' presentation focussed on a few case studies, including profiling the location of mobile phone calls in real time (for quality of service, not surveillance purposes, you'll be relieved to hear) and analysis of data provided after fitting out a US sports arena with iBeacons. Retail banking was also mentioned as a sector of interest.

Mills remarked that beacons effectively just provide another new data point to Pivotal. I suspect that organisations with an existing investment in Big Data are likely to take a similar view, and would be keen to derive maximum value from their beacon-specific customer engagement data by importing it into their existing solution.

5) Apple in Retail by Tom Grant - Apple Systems Engineer.

We were asked to treat the detail of Tom Grant's presentation as confidential, which I found slightly odd, as I don't recall anything being mentioned that wasn't already in the public domain. The presentation comprised a high level technical discussion and some case studies, which is unfortunately about as much as I can say without getting into specifics.

Grant is an engaging speaker, and I saw his attendance as evidence that Apple remains committed to the technology and to the UK iBeacon community.

After a brief Q&A, during which there was a short discussion of whether Android apps can consume iBeacon advertising packets (they can, if you were in any doubt), delegates retired for a quick tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and a networking lunch.

I found the event extremely valuable; I learned from the experiences of others and made new contacts within the wider beacon community. Academia should be congratulated for having the foresight to put the event together, for attracting a strong line up of speakers, and for ensuring it ran so smoothly.

I'm convinced that beacons provide great potential for building novel and compelling interactions, and for building new businesses to deliver them.

It's an exciting time to be a Technologist.

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