What is an iBeacon?
iBeacons are small devices which transmit a signal to smartphones nearby. Imagine you're in a department store. You plan on getting a new pair of shoes and you're going to browse for a book also. You examine some shoes but don't find what you want. As you walk away your phone beeps and a text message tells you:
'There are more shoes round the next corner on the left. We have some special offers there.'
Wonderful - you find exactly what you want and it's on offer. You buy them and walk towards the books and magazines section. As you leave the checkout you get another message:
'Do you need a sports bag to keep your shoes in? They are on the next floor up. You can get a 10% discount today.'
You ignore that message.
How it works
The shoes you first looked at carried a small tag like the security tags fitted to some products. The tag detected your phone and triggered the first message as you walked away without going to the payment desk. Had you tried to steal shoes it would have reacted as a normal security tag. There was a second iBeacon near the shoe department entrance. It recognised your phone as belonging to someone who had just made a purchase of shoes and triggered the second message.
iBeacons can be placed anywhere. They are low cost devices, programmable and potentially useful to a shopper.
- As you walk past a coffee shop you could be offered a free coffee 'today only - just show this message'. You get one but the friend you are with has to pay for theirs. It's detected both your phones.
- As you walk past a cinema you are told what is now playing.
- As you pass a newsagent you are told there's an update available on a story you've been following.
- When you are near a clothes shop you are told there's a sale of jackets now on.
- iBeacons can be set to only act if it's target has been near it for some time, you won't be bothered with messages about vacuum cleaners if you are just passing by them but may be messaged if you've been in that area for a while.
The actual iBeacons are small. They run for years from a button cell. They are self adhesive and cost little - about $10 at the moment but that price will drop. To pick up their signals a shopper would have to have a free app installed on their phone. They will try it out and if they find it benefits them, it will stay on their phone.
How it can be abused
There's nothing to stop someone hiding their own iBeacon in a store which uses the system. The iBeacon could quickly be hidden under a shelf.
- As you browse the books you might get a message telling you it would be much more convenient and cost less to get the book in e-book format at Amazon. Just click this link to download it now to your phone. The link is of course an affiliate link which earns the iBeacon owner a small commission.
- While you wait for a bus outside the store you may get an advert for a game to pass the time.
- A hidden iBeacon may direct shoppers to a competitor's store.
If you want to know more about the technology try this video from Estimote Beacons.
Finally, perhaps I have a devious mind but as soon as I found out about iBeacons, I saw the potential they have. Maybe I could use an iBeacon in a location where people are browsing for books or waiting to direct people to the free ebook I have? I'm sure you can think up some other possible ways to use/misuse the technology. Let us all know in the comments.