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Apple iBeacon: signs of new direction

Date

Garry Barker

Multi-platform: iBeacon isn't Apple-specific.

Multi-platform: iBeacon isn't Apple-specific.

Once in a while, and the whiles are becoming shorter, a technology comes hurtling along that disrupts established behaviours and changes irrevocably important bits of our daily lives.

The most recent of these is Apple's iBeacon, which could dash the hopes of near field communications (NFC) to be the master of mobile payments. The gadget has enormous potential in education, healthcare, retailing, banking and parts of our global society that other technologies will wish they could reach in such an intimate way. The development of iBeacon explains why Apple declined to embrace NFC.

The iBeacon technology arrived, almost unnoticed, with the release of mobile operating system iOS7, at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference in June 2013. It is now an integral part of the customer experience in all 254 Apple stores in the United States, though not yet in Australia, is going into schools here and around the world, and is regarded by some as a saviour of bricks-and-mortar retailing.

We think this is the start of a technology revolution that will rival the invention of the mouse and the graphical user interface, in the impact it could have on human-computer connection, and change the way all manner of organisations connect with the people they serve and who serve them.

So what is an iBeacon, what does it do and how? It uses a limited-range, two-way wireless technology called Bluetooth 4.0, or Bluetooth LE (for low energy) and ''geofencing'', another way of saying that if you are inside an iBeacon's ''tent'', it will talk to you; otherwise, it will not. The tents are in three sizes, according to function - immediate (a few centimetres, like NFC), near (a couple of metres) and far (more than 10-metres radius). It will transmit to, and receive from, mobile devices using specialist apps to provide micro-location awareness - trail markers in a park, exhibits in a museum, information on trains and trams, contact with students in schools, workers in factories and offices and so on.

An iBeacon at the door of a store will greet you, maybe tell you of special offers, ask what you seek using Siri voice technology or an on-screen keyboard and, via specialist apps installed on your iOS7 device, lead you to the merchandise. It will help you buy goods through a payments system, such as your iTunes or PayPal accounts, thus reducing the risk of your credit card details being hijacked. And that is but a scratch on the surface of the uses seen for iBeacon.

Bluetooth 4.0 is available for all platforms so devices running Android and Windows should respond to an iBeacon if compatible apps have been installed. Apple embraced iBeacon technology from the beginning, has patents covering functions it has developed, and as always, it is the functionality of the app on the platform that really matters.

For local initiatives, I consulted two Australian pioneers of iBeacon technology and related educational app development: Geoff Elwood, chief executive and founder of Melbourne-based Specialist Apps (specialistapps.com); and Paul Hamilton, an Apple distinguished educator, and primary school teacher at Matthew Flinders Anglican College at Buderim, Queensland.

Both are highly respected developers of educational technology and iBeacon is the latest of their passions.

Hamilton says he was the first person in the world to use iBeacon technology in a school. At Matthew Flinders he has installed three iBeacons for interactive technology, library and art learning zones. His website, appsbypaulhamilton.com, includes videos showing them at work.

Elwood's largest installation so far is at Bryanston, an elite coeducational school based in a country mansion on a 160-hectare estate beside the River Stour in Dorset.

Bryanston employs a student management application that uses an online eLockers information system, distributed by the iBeacon network. ''With iBeacons, a teacher can use an eLocker application to quickly form a proximity group, press a button on the iPad and transmit a notification to students within the proximity to open an eLocker that is blinking on their screens. The app is both transmitter and receiver, but we have taken the technology beyond just transmitting and receiving to establishing direct relationships between teachers and students, individually or in groups,'' Elwood says.

''Or take the corporate context. If you have members of your organisation in an active directory, you can interact with them in certain ways based on their proximity to an iBeacon and what they or you wish to do.''

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