Big things are expected from iBeacon, Apple's new indoor positioning system that was released in iOS 7. Basically, it's a feature that will allow people with Apple iOS 7 or Android devices to receive push notifications based on their location. The most commonly discussed scenario thus far has been around retail applications: Walk into Macy's or an Apple store, for instance, and you can elect to receive promotions based on where you walk and what products you're looking at. Other factors may be taken into consideration as well, such as your purchase history from that retail chain.
This same technology could have a major impact on event applications. For several years we've seen location-based functionality making its way into apps with varying degrees of success. Apps that rely on GPS, for instance, can't generally provide the necessary accuracy to pinpoint a booth on a trade show floor. Those that rely on Near Field Communication (NFC) require devices to be in very close proximity, not to mention the fact that Apple devices don't actually have NFC built in -- a major hinderance to more widespread acceptance of the technology.
But iBeacon uses Bluetooth Low Energy, which is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 functionality that is built into most modern mobile devices, including all Apple iPhones from the 4s on. What's more, it doesn't require additional hardware to be placed at strategic locations; in fact, any device running Apple iOS 7 can be an iBeacon.
"We see it as the single biggest game changer since the actual introduction of the iPhone," says Lawrence Coburn, CEO of app provider DoubleDutch. "The reason that it's so important to mobile event apps like DoubleDutch is that this concept of context is really crucial for delivering the right experience at the right time, at the right place, to the right person."
I spoke with Coburn because DoubleDutch has already embraced the technology, with its recent introduction of two features based on iBeacon. Coburn, in fact, has long been a proponent of building geolocation functionality into event apps; when DoubleDutch first came onto the scene several years ago, he positioned the company as a "FourSquare for events," with booth check-ins contributing to engagement and interaction. Although the DoubleDutch app has since evolved into something more broad, this idea of pushing out information based on context has been a driving force in the development of the company.
"We've been able to do some really neat things with the contextual trigger of time," Coburn notes. "So just knowing what time it is allows us to deliver different experiences and different views of the app. A very simple example of that is that if you're looking at a session that is happening in the future, you'll be prompted to add that session to your agenda. If you're looking at that same session page and it's in the past, you'll be prompted to rate that session or fill out a survey. And if you're looking at that session page as it's happening, you'll be prompted to check in or ask a question of the presenter."
It follows, then, that if the event app is also aware of your location, the information it pushes to you will be even more targeted and relevant.
When iBeacon was announced, recounts Coburn, the DoubleDutch developer team spent a half day just brainstorming every potential use they could imagine for it. Although Coburn provided me with a hint of what he calls some of iBeacon's more "mind-bending" potential uses, he isn't ready to discuss them publicly just yet. Following, though, are the uses his team has already incorporated into the app.
The first feature, which DoubleDutch calls Roll Call, can auto-check-in attendees to a session based on their arrival in a room. All they have to do is be running the DoubleDutch app on their smartphones and have opted in to use the feature. And because iBeacon requires no specialized hardware, an event organizer need only have an iPad acting as an iBeacon near the entrance to a session. That iPad will automatically detect when an attendee enters the room.
You can use this for governance, says Coburn, to ensure that attendees are actually in required sessions. But he's more excited about the possibilities to provide a better event experience. Handouts or presentations can be automatically pushed to session attendees, for example.
And, ultimately, this kind of feature provides more data -- about where people have been and what their interests are. And that's the other reason Coburn is so excited about iBeacon. It's about measuring attendee behavior in such a way that hasn't been done before and compiling previously elusive event data for marketing purposes.
The second feature DoubleDutch has rolled out is called Networking Nearby, and it can alert the attendee when a "person of interest" is within 10, 15 or 20 meters, depending on the settings. This, describes Coburn, is based on doing the research before an event and taking note which other attendees you might like to meet. Such a feature, he says, "assists the serendipity" of such encounters. And for this, a beacon isn't even necessary -- only two attendees running the app on their mobile devices.
As we've seen with early iterations of similar technology, this is exactly the kind of feature that can set off privacy alarms. Coburn assures me that attendees will be able to opt out of this if they so choose, though. His team also is working through the privacy settings and potential concerns now, and investigating just how Apple allows iBeacon users to handle such settings. (For example, I wondered, can the "Do Not Disturb" feature in iOS turn off these Bluetooth alerts as well? Coburn is looking into that.)
DoubleDutch has used these features at its own events, but as of a few days ago none of its clients had used them yet. Many of them, adds Coburn, are very eager to do so. For those of you who have already experimented with iBeacon-based features at your events, please share your experiences here or send me an email. I'd love to discuss the ups and downs you've encountered so far.