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On the Possibilities and Challenges of BLE Beacons: Part 1

Blog-iBeacon1In this three-part series, Sequence Creative Director John Donohoe addresses the hype surrounding BLE beacons, the challenges using the technology in some of the most expected applications, and to clarify where BLE beacons can be best used to create engaging, customer-centric experiences. First up: an introduction.

Since Apple announced iBeacon in 2013, customer experience industries such as UX and product design, retail, event management, and transportation have been inundated with hype around how this technology could transform their businesses. If you’ve missed the clamor, hundreds of articles have been written and new startups appear daily that use beacons to focus on environmental contexts or personal tracking.

But among the snappy videos and gushing blog posts there is a significant lack of real information about what is and is not possible using beacon technology. And if you’re like us here at Sequence, you know the details are the difference between delivering a customer experience based on real science and proposing vaporware supported by imagined science fiction.

To strengthen our understanding, we spent several months experimenting with BLE beacons and smartphones, and came away with some key learnings.

A little beacon background
By the late 2000s, Bluetooth was fast becoming the communication standard between devices. The inclusion of Low Energy Bluetooth (aka BLE aka Bluetooth Smart) with the release Bluetooth 4.0 marked a major milestone in the development of a new breed of small, connected products that was to become the “Internet of Things” movement. BLE was designed to allow small amounts of data to be transferred between devices with a minimal impact to battery life. Soon all sorts of BLE wearable sensors and computer peripherals made their way onto the market, and BLE beacons decisively entered the product space.

BLE beacons are small, inexpensive sensors that provide the foundational technology for the sort of location-specific, contextually-aware experiences that UX designers have been envisioning for years. For example, a retail store could respond to a customer’s arrival by offering loyalty incentives and deeper product information to facilitate a quicker purchase. Or in a residential setting, a person could program his environment (lighting, security, entertainment settings) to dynamically adjust as he moves from room to room.

But the potential differs from the reality. Low Energy Bluetooth Beacons present challenges. Common misperceptions persist among those looking to capitalize on their possibilities.

In the second post in this series, we’ll share the seven “realities” that arose from our exploration of beacons, and in the third post, offer our recommendations for using beacons with the highest chance of success.

Update:  Adding the links to the other two chapters in this series

Part 2: & Realities of working with BLE Beacons

Part 3: Design Consideration

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