Why I Want Apple’s iBeacon At Home

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Apple flipped a switch this week and enabled customers at 254 U.S. Apple Stores to get spammed with micro-location based promotional nagging.

The new system, called iBeacon, is a  low cost, low-energy way to achieve actionable “indoor GPS” in which “beacons” use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals to figure out exactly where you are and send messages relevant to that specific location.

I’ve written before that Apple’s larger iBeacon plan is brilliant, and it is.

But Apple Stores are probably the least-compelling iBeacon scenario I can think of.

Your typical Apple store is a glass box, a single room with a door in the front, a Genius Bar in the back and tables and shelves in the middle. It’s impossible to get lost in a regular Apple Store and trivially easy for customers to find any of the tiny number of products for sale. Also: Apple doesn’t do in-store promotional discounts except for one day a year (Black Friday).

Right now, you participate in the Apple Store iBeacon system by launching the Apple Store app (which I imagine most iPhone owners don’t know exists) and changing your iPhone’s settings to use iBeacon (which most iPhone owners don’t know how to do) and granting permission to get in-store promotions (which most iPhone owners probably have no interest in).

Once all that happens, iBeacon interrupts you to nag you about trading in your old iPhone, and offers help like Microsoft’s Clippy when you’re looking at a specific section of the store: “I see you are looking at iPads? Would you like to know more about the iPad?” (I made up the wording, but the intent of some iBeacon messages is identical to that.)

As a result, iBeacon in Apple Stores mostly annoys. I can think of a hundred scenarios where iBeacon could be incredibly great. But the greatest of these: My house. 

iBeacon is Popping Up In Strange Places

One UK company is using iBeacon to offer hyper-local digital publications in places where people tend to sit around. The idea is that normally for-pay newspapers and magazines are free, as long as you’re sitting there in the coffee shop, bar, restaurant or hotel lobby. It serves the business, because they can provide something of monetary value to customers free. And it helps the publishers, because would-be readers get to try their publications as a kind of location-based free trial.

There are other unexpected locations. For example, the iBeacon system is getting a gigantic deployment at The Mets’ Citi Field.

It’s also being deployed in malls, department stores and all kinds of other retail locations. All of these are likely to be more appealing than inside Apple Stores because they are places where people need help navigating indoors, finding out about promotional deals and possible even paying for things without waiting in line (which already existed at Apple Stores).

But I think the best place for iBeacon might be in homes.

Bringing Home the iBeacon

As we get closer to the coming smart home revolution, it’s clear that smartphones and tablets are going to be the devices that we use to control our lamps, lights, thermostats, sprinklers, security systems and entertainment systems.

Scanning the vast, emerging innovations for low-cost, mobile-controlled home automation (much of it on crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter at present), it’s pretty clear that the home of the near future (3-5 years) will operate something like this:

  • As you pull into the driveway after a long day at work, the driveway and footpath lights come on. The door is unlocked for you as you approach it.
  • Upon entering, the lights turn on, music starts and a soothing voice greets you, giving you updates about when your spouse will be home and letting you know who came to the door earlier.
  • You tell your invisible personal assistant — let’s call it “Siri” — “Hey, put on the game.” (An Apple patent surfaced recently for a special dock for using Siri in the home separate from a mobile device.) Siri knows enough about you and your interests and habits to turn off the music, turn on the TV and tune into the Knick game currently in progress.
  • You go into the bedroom to change and the TV in there comes on with the game, then off again when you leave the bedroom.
  • You don’t have a TV in the kitchen, but when you go into the kitchen to start on dinner, the audio from the game automatically plays for as long as you’re in there.
  • Whoops! You spill some mustard on the floor, so you say: “Siri, I spilled something.” As you leave, you cross paths with the floor-mopping robot, which Siri has dispatched at your request.

You get the idea. All of this will happen without you taking the phone out of your pocket. Apple’s iBeacon system is perfect for this entire scenario, which of course requires some kind of indoor location system.

In fact, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ home works like this. The system was created before smartphones and smartphone apps existed, so visitors have to wear pins that inform the house of their locations.

In addition to enabling the home automation system to know your location, an app could surface the buttons and controls you’re likely to want. For example, when you’re sitting on the couch, your phone display could be a TV remote. When you’re in the kitchen, it could offer a selection of kitchen apps, such as recipes and food measurement apps. When you’re in the bedroom, it could offer a control panel to turn off the lights and turn down the heat.

One great feature of iBeacon is that any newer iOS device running iOS 7 or later can be configured to be an iBeacon transmitter. That means as users upgrade, they can continue to use their iPhones and iPads as iBeacon transmitters (even as they do double-duty as things like kitchen computers and security cameras).

Sure, iBeacon will be great for location-based marketing, customer service and even point-of-sale applications.

But the real genius of iBeacon is when Apple combines it with Siri and third-party home automation solutions to enable an amazingly low-cost and robust smart home.

(Picture courtesy of Freshome.)

Related
  • Frank Lowney

    Wonderful! Bring it on.

  • esbendeven

    I think you missed one thing: wearable computing.
    If the Gates house does it now with pins, why wouldn’t a iBeacons house use something small on your body, like a wrist band, or iWatch, or even eventually just track you with sensors?

  • roocik

    Low-cost? I don’t think so…
    I like however the smart home idea and would love to see Apple’s shot at it :)

  • barijaona

    Right now, you participate in the Apple Store iBeacon system by launching the App Store app (which I imagine most iPhone owners don’t know exists)

    Apparently, even a cultist forgets that the app is called Apple Store, not App Store :-) …

  • Chris Leiter

    Your examples are very nice, but you’re looking forward quite a few years to be honest.
    The way I see current iBeacon technology emerging at home will be with our current iPhones and iPads, Apple TVs (which do BT 4.0) and very few select 3rd party devices. I’d love to see Nest add this capability to their thermostat and recently released protect smoke detector.

    Also, they’re spamming the hell out of Apple stores because what better store to stress test a new technology than the most popular/profitable retail store in the world?

  • banjamin

    Love this concept and think it will open up amazing possibilities for the smart home. The question is, how difficult does this become for the average person to set up? I came across this company Zuli that looks to be doing some really cool things with iBeacons in your home. All you have to do is buy 3 of their smartplugs (for just $135), connect them to your lights and appliances, and your home can triangulate what room you’re in. Then you can set up your preferences to do anything you want based on what room you are in.

    They’re on Kickstarter now and say they’ll launch in June if they reach their goal by January. (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zuli/zuli-smartplugs) They also say they are working on an open API which could allow developers to immediately start tapping into this location feature to build everything the article mentions. Maybe we’re not so far away from this after all. Great article!

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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