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iBeacons & The Arts

iBeacons are on the rise. This location-aware technology is currently being used by hospitals, schools and big-name retailers, with many more being predicted to follow suit within the next few years. As arts and cultural organisations begin to get in on the act too, I’m going to take a quick look at what iBeacons are, how the technology works, and explore a few emerging ideas for using it in the arts.

What are iBeacons?

An iBeacon is a location-aware piece of technology that works via the latest Bluetooth Low-Energy format (BLE). iBeacon is Apple’s own version of this type of technology, through which a beacon (a small piece of hardware) can send push notifications to mobiles and smart devices nearby, depending on the user’s location and proximity to the beacon.

Smart devices pick up these Bluetooth signals and can interact with them through compatible apps installed on the device (for example through a retailer's app), with a signal distance ranging between 7 inches and up to 70 metres depending on the hardware and its settings. Say, for instance, you’re browsing in a computer games retailer and you come into the range of a specific beacon in the shop (positioned on a wall or next to a shelf); the beacon broadcasts a Bluetooth signal which your smart device picks up when it approaches the beacon and a notification appears on your phone. This notification could be in the form of a message alerting you to a discount on the game you’re standing next to, or even offering a quicker method to purchase the product.

In addition to sending out push notifications, beacons can also be a valuable source of data, tracking footfall around particular objects and exploring how people move around a space. Retailers are beginning to make good use of this functionality at the moment, but galleries, museums and multi-arts venues are likely to follow next.

Retailers are beginning to make good use of this functionality at the moment, but galleries, museums and multi-arts venues are likely to follow next. Image credit.

Do they actually work? 

I bet some of you are already pointing out potential problems; advert and content fatigue on your mobile device, privacy concerns, adaptability and performance issues across different spaces and devices, to name a few. Fortunately, iBeacons are already being tried and tested in several places, like all U.S. Apple Stores, Heathrow Airport (in a trial conducted by Virgin Atlantic), and in Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, one of the oldest arts venues in Wales. As a result, the advantages and disadvantages of the technology are steadily becoming clear.

Practicability
Because of an iBeacon’s small size and low-energy usage, they’re pretty practical. Equipped with a sticky back and a battery life of around 2 years, they really can be placed just about anywhere – anywhere they won’t get rained on – for considerable amounts of time. The iBeacon technology is Apple’s, but both iOS and Android devices can interact with them.

Indoor Mapping
The bluetooth technology means that it works well in an indoor environment (unlike GPS) adding to its suitability for shops, museums, concert halls, etc.

User Control
iBeacon apps come with settings that allow the user to determine the amount and type of content they receive, enabling them to opt-out of receiving notifications. Whilst it’s important to allow users to opt-out of receiving notifications that are bothersome, if it’s too easy to opt-out then the reach of an iBeacon app will already be compromised. Getting this balance right is key to the success of implementing beacons.

User Privacy
As Sarah Perez correctly points out, iBeacon technology may develop and spread so quickly that we’ll struggle to keep up with it, compromising user privacy and discouraging users from trying out beacons. It’s important to note that iBeacons don’t track the user – it works vice-versa. It’s the app on the user’s phone that reports the user’s proximity information back to the app provider and potentially the store/venue. This information could be highly valuable to the merchant or implementers of the technology, so there needs to be a certain degree of compromise on their part – perhaps gaining consent beforehand or ensuring the data will only be held for as long as it is needed for data analytics. The information should derive from the location rather than user or their device.

Signal Overlap
When testing how iBeacons might work in an arts setting, Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw reported problems with the iBeacon’s signal in a crowded space. Issues included notifications flicking between current and previous ones, and some beacon signals overriding others. In this case, these issues were resolved by adjusting the range and limit of each individual signal via Estimote (manufacturer of the beacons)’s virtual beacon app.

iBeacons in an arts context

For anyone considering using iBeacon technology in the arts, there’s one key thing to keep in mind: don’t confront users with meaningless or irrelevant content; the public’s patience with iBeacons could quickly run out if they’re not treated with some subtlety. Remember that the most successful iBeacon implementations “stimulate visitor growth and user experience” but don’t bombard people with marketing messages.

Incentive to Download
One thing to consider is the fact that users need to have the specific mobile app downloaded in order to receive and interact with the signal. Arts organisations, therefore, not only need to spend time and resource creating an application, but need to find ways to encourage their patrons to download the app. Packaging this in the right way is key; get priority booking through the app; faster alerts about something that’s booking fast; or giving access to exclusive content.

Inexpensive with High Value
Aside from the cost of developing an app (which a number of arts organisations may already have) quite a significant benefit of iBeacons is that the hardware itself is inexpensive.
 
E-commerce Potential
In the same way that online retailers minimise the customer’s journey to making a purchase, iBeacons can offer the arts a new (quicker) way to get people buying things. The gift shop, the theatre book shop, the bar, the space directly in front of the poster for a new exhibition; all of these become spaces where iBeacons could have a real benefit when it comes to encouraging audiences to part with a few quid.

Conclusion

From a business perspective, arts organisations who are most innovative with technology are 3.2 times more likely to say that technology has had a positive impact on their revenue. Used correctly, a relatively inexpensive and increasingly popular tool like iBeacons (with clear commercial applications) could help arts organisations to increase revenue and plug the funding gap. The correct way to use this technology, however, is not quite fully tested. Inundating your audience with content they don’t want will turn them off, but not utilising beacons at all could mean missing out on an effective and (increasingly) widely accepted communications channel.

 

This is a guest post for Spektrix by Robin Sheffield.