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Beacon technologies: Cool apps, but also network challenges

There are countless exciting applications for beacons, but can they fulfill everything they promise? And, more important, can your backend infrastructure support them?

If you're ever killing time inside Orlando International Airport and need directions to the closest Cinnabon, there's an app for that.

In fact, the app, called Orlando MCO Airport, can direct you to nearly 1,600 different destinations inside the airport -- everywhere from gates and ticket counters to shops and restaurants to the closest elevators, restrooms and courtesy phones. And it's all made possible by 1,000 Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) beacons.

In some sense, the airport's use of beacon technologies isn't news at all. The app, built on the Aruba Networks' Meridian AppMaker platform, has been around for more than a year. It was the first in the air transportation industry to feature a "blue dot" experience, similar to GPS navigation, to show users a path to their destination. More than 30,000 travelers have downloaded it.

The beacon technology has been "rock solid," and new features for the app are coming soon, according to John Newsome, IT director at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which manages the airport. Those new features will include a mechanism to help visitors navigate parking lots and wait-time estimators for airport security lines.

Is this a sign that beacons have finally matured and gone mainstream? Or is it just that an airport, like a hospital or college campus, is exactly the right location to get the most out of the technology?

"We are an extension of our community," Newsome says of the airport. "We deal with millions of people, all of whom are here [in Orlando] to have a pleasant experience. We don't want to screw it up."

Unfortunately, that's exactly what has happened with many implementations of beacon technologies, according to Tim Zimmerman, research vice president at Gartner covering the Internet of Things.

"We have found that many projects have failed because the architect was enamored with the mobile application capabilities and back-end application functionality without understanding whether the beacon components could broadcast the right information to the right constituency," Zimmerman wrote in a recent research note, "Best Practices for Implementing Beacons in IoT Solutions."

He says that one of the best uses of beacon technology is for applications that provide directions or routes to the end users, such as turn-by-turn directions at sprawling venues like hospitals and shopping malls, or for self-guided tours of university campuses.

Houston Methodist Hospital is using beacons to give indoor directions to general amenities like cafeterias and restrooms. Working with Phunware, a mobile marketing platform vendor, the hospital has deployed beacons about every 100 feet for a proof of concept.

The tricky part is giving consumers the "blue dot" navigation experience with a level of accuracy that they've come to expect from GPS. That's a whole lot more complicated indoors, where directing people down narrow corridors requires greater precision than routing them over highways and city streets.

"GPS has set a false expectation" about the level of detail indoor positioning technology can provide consumers, says George Stefanick, a wireless network architect at the hospital. "The common user doesn't know the difference, but that's the expectation," he explains.

A beacon of hope?

Some of the biggest challenges with beacon technologies, however, haven't been technical, according to Stefanick. Establishing a champion for the technology on site -- someone to manage the project so it meets the expectations of senior leadership -- is often a struggle for many enterprises.

"This is not a cheap solution by any stretch. It's still a new technology," Stefanick says. "It's not just that you're going to install some beacons and walk away. It's not that simple."

That is especially true for retailers, who want to know the precise location of their customers -- and the products on the shelf that are within an arm's reach -- so that they can tailor their marketing.

"We haven't gotten to the point where the price of the overall solution will allow retailers to deploy that. That's why we're seeing that [indoor positioning] is more successful," Zimmerman says. "With retail, we're at a standstill, for the most part."

But that hasn't stopped some of the country's biggest retailers from experimenting with beacon technologies. Target announced last August that it was testing beacon technology in 50 locations nationwide with an app for the iPhone. Consumers were told to expect to receive product recommendations or coupons based on their location in a store.

Macy's showed its confidence in beacons by using them during the busiest shopping time of the year.  The "Macy's Black Friday Walk In and Win" game offered shoppers at 700 stores a chance to win $1 million in prizes through its app, connected to beacons powered by Zebra Technologies.

To create a better store experience for its shoppers, Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets tapped inMarket, a mobile marketing company that cites ComScore data to support its claim that inMarket's technology reaches more than 40 million shoppers every month through beacons -- the largest such audience in the country.

Rather than send messages to shoppers as they move up and down the aisles, Marsh, which operates 78 stores in Indiana and Ohio, sends just a single message via an app on their smartphone, usually as a shopper enters a store or approaches a register.

In other words, it's enough for Marsh to know the shopper has crossed the threshold of a supermarket; exactly where he or she may go once inside is less important.

"When I enter a store and my phone engages with the beacon, the Marsh app wakes up, welcomes me, and reminds me of the digital coupons and draws my attention to another great digital offer that I can also clip and use on that trip," wrote Amit Bhardwaj, senior director of customer loyalty for Marsh, in an email. "It really is as simple as installing a beacon in the store -- so long as you have the app scale in place to listen for them."

Not all beacons 'a slam dunk'

But not all beacon deployments live happily ever after, warns one analyst.

"Beacons are great, but they have a lot of issues. The hype doesn't live up to the reality," says Maribel Lopez, founder of research firm Lopez Research in San Francisco.

The first barrier to the success of beacon technologies is that consumers need to download an app for the beacons to talk to. Nationwide retailers are big enough to attract proactive users, but for smaller retailers, the technology just isn't practical, Lopez says.

There are technical challenges, too: checking for interference in the environment, making sure beacons haven't fallen out of place, using the technology to deliver compelling content, and linking to content management and customer relationship management systems. It's a tall order.

"The actual management of beacons is not a slam dunk," Lopez says.

[Interference] is so bad, in fact, that I can be standing directly beside a beacon on the wall and find a stronger signal coming from one across the room.
Shelley Bernsteinvice director of digital engagement and technology, Brooklyn Museum

Case in point: At the Brooklyn Museum, Shelley Bernstein, the vice director of digital engagement and technology at the museum, blogged last year about her frustrations installing beacons from Estimote throughout 500,000 square feet of gallery space.

The beacons didn't stick well to walls. There was no central management tool to track them or monitor battery life. There weren't even serial numbers on each device so that she could replace one easily if it did fall.

"Beacon signal, for instance, is disrupted by everything save air … walls, vitrines, objects, people, you name it," she wrote. "This problem is so bad, in fact, that I can be standing directly beside a beacon on the wall and find a stronger signal coming from one across the room."

Now, multiply all that by 100. If a company has multiple locations, but doesn't have IT staff in every building, who decides where to put each beacon? Who sticks it on the wall? Who checks to make sure it's still there six months later? The traditional retail floor employee needs a video or some sort of guide to install beacons properly, Lopez says.

"Back in the day, when you set up a wireless LAN, somebody came out and figured out where to put access points," Lopez says. "There was a whole art and science to it."

"You don't just pack up beacons in a box, ship them, and say ‘Plug them in,'" she continues. "It's not a tablet. It's not a laptop. It took 15 years to get to the point of sending out wireless access points and saying, ‘Plug it in.'"

That may be why some large retailers have chosen a less ambitious approach: attaching beacons to individual shopping carts rather than store walls.

Moxie Retail, which provides technology services to big-box retailers in Canada, uses shopping cart-mounted beacons along with Wi-Fi infrastructure from Ruckus Wireless to track user behavior and optimize store layouts. Using beacons this way also avoided any privacy concerns consumers may have, says Peter Townsend, senior vice president of strategy and insights at Moxie Retail.

At Houston Methodist Hospital, Stefanick sees a similar use for beacon technologies in the near future: as a location-based service. Instead of sticking beacons on walls, the hospital could attach them to assets like wheelchairs or infusion pumps. Tracking them using Bluetooth Low Energy could be much less expensive than doing so over Wi-Fi, the current practice.

Article 3 of 7

Next Steps

Using Wi-Fi with indoor positioning

Bluetooth Low-Energy beacons: Applications in healthcare

Network Innovation Award: Aruba Mobile Engagement

This was last published in March 2016

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