It’s all about location, location, location… but you knew that already, didn’t you?

Imagine that you’re visiting a zoo and, as you walk up to the ticket counter, you get a phone notification that there is a special zoo app and, if you download it, you will get 15% off of your ticket price. So you do. While you’re visiting, the app provides you an interactive map of the zoo, tells you about special animal demonstrations that are coming up, and lets you mark the ones that you would like to see with a star. As you are walking around the zoo, the app offers to show you additional information about the animals that you are seeing – video, photos, maybe even live webcam feeds of animals that you can’t see very well from where you’re standing. While you’re exploring the exhibits, your phone alerts you that one of the demonstrations that you’ve starred is going to start soon and that, if you’re going to make it in time, you need to start walking towards it now… and then gives you directions from where you are to where the demonstration is. Once you’ve watched the animal demonstration, the app gives you a special offer for a stuffed toy version of that same animal – which you can purchase from your phone and have waiting for you when you leave – letting you skip the checkout line and get a great souvenir at a lower cost. As you leave the zoo, the app thanks you for your visit and offers you a discount coupon for your next visit.

An app like that seems kind of like a science fiction – and, if it’s not, it seems like it would be SUPER expensive to build – but it’s not fiction and it’s not just for the mega-rich. It’s all possible right now using the power of beacon technology.

What ARE beacons?

Beacons are essentially very small, battery-powered, Bluetooth transmitters. These little devices are designed to work in tandem with Bluetooth-enabled smartphones to allow apps to determine micro-location information about the user. They do this by allowing the phone to calculate how far it is from the beacon. They can do other things as well – we’ll cover that in a moment – but beacon tech is primarily about figuring out where your phone is (and, consequently, where you are) within a few feet and it’s very good at this. When combined with a well-designed, well-built, and beacon-aware app, they suddenly become extremely powerful for getting timely, appropriate, and situation-specific content in the hands of visitors to your church campus or off-site event.

Beacon tech comes in two flavors: iBeacon (Apple) and Eddystone (Google). They are essentially the same idea, but they do have some differences. Apple’s iBeacon has been around longer (since 2013), has a proven record and, while it is technically iOS compatible only, there are several workarounds already in place for the technology that allow developers to use it with Android as well. Eddystone, on the other hand, is brand new (July of this year, 2015) but is natively compatible with both iOS and Android devices. It also has more capabilities built in than iBeacon. Eddystone beacons can tell your phone their name (ID), a website to go visit (URL), and some info about their environment (telemetry information like weather, ambient volume, light intensity, etc.). This gives developers a lot of exciting data for the companion app to work with.

All beacons – whether iBeacon or Eddystone – are one-way transmitters. They don’t know anything about your visitors and they can’t hear anything that their phones say back. They can only tell an app about themselves so we have to create some way for a phone to interpret and USE that beacon information in order to give users the information that they need. That’s why we have to build apps.

There’s an app for that… because there has to be.

So, beacons basically sit in their assigned spot shouting out information about themselves. That’s not even remotely useful until you have an app on your user’s smartphone that allows you to use that information. But, once you have an app, knowing exactly where your visitor is allows you to do some really neat things. You can use beacon-aware apps to give your visitors specific directions from their location to another location – say the sanctuary or the restrooms or the correct nursery room for their child. You can combine location data with a special event time (like an animal demonstration at our example zoo) to calculate how long it will take the visitor to travel from their current location to the event location in time to experience the event, then alert the visitor in enough time to travel AND provide them with accurate directions to the correct location. You can detect if a visitor is near a special feature (such as a memorial) and give them more detailed and interactive information related to it. If you’re a church, you can identify that a visitor is on campus at a specific service time and automatically serve them the bulletin and announcement information for that campus and time.

You can also use beacons to gather valuable data about your visitors in order to improve their experience. You can find foot traffic bottlenecks, track visitor flow through your facility, determine peak times for specific spaces in your facility, and so much more. Beacons essentially allow us to bring web-analytics type data into the real world.

The options are only limited by our imaginations and the capabilities of the app that you build.

Can’t we do this with GPS already?

The short answer is, “not effectively.” GPS is certainly powerful but it has two really major limitations when it comes to app building. First, it’s an energy hog. GPS eats up massive amounts of battery power when it’s turned on – especially when it’s having difficulty determining your location. Secondly, GPS has trouble accurately determining location in many indoor locations. So, in a building like a museum, a mall, or a large church facility, GPS-aware apps will give you bad data at the cost of massive power consumption. Doesn’t seem like such a great deal, does it?

Beacon tech, on the other hand, uses very little energy – the beacons themselves are battery powered (usually a small watch battery) and those batteries last, on average, about 2 years before they start to run down. Bluetooth on a smartphone uses significantly less energy than GPS. Especially since, in the case of beacons, a smartphone is only receiving data, not transmitting.

Finding new paths.

Beacon technology is a relatively new but very exciting option for location-specific apps. There is just so much possibility and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what it’s capable of. What we DO know is that, the more we explore all that we can do with beacons, the more we’re able to create apps that integrate with and enhance visitor experiences rather than interrupt them. This is always our goal with apps – to use technology to make life better and easier instead of more complicated. Beacon technology is letting us do this on a whole new level. If you’re curious about what beacons can do for you, feel free to get in touch – we’d love to explore the possibilities with you!