The near future for beacons may not lie in retail

Barclays announced plans this week to test a beacon-based service in its branches that is aimed at helping customers with disabilities, as Finextra reported. The London-based financial services behemoth said customers can use the service by entering information including accessibility needs and a photo of themselves through an app. When users enter a branch they are identified on iPads at the front desk. Barclays Access, as the offering is branded, will undergo a three-month trial beginning this week at a single branch in the U.K.

Some major retailers are scrambling to deploy beacons in an effort to track customers and deliver location-specific product information and marketing come-ons to customers as they walk through the store. And the Bluetooth-powered devices may eventually become a vehicle for some important mobile payments systems (although that kind of speculation has quieted now that Apple Pay has sparked renewed interest in NFC). But beacons face some major challenges in the retail world: A sizable percentage of consumers say they don’t want to be tracked as they shop in brick-and-mortar stores, and many actively block the in-app alerts that are crucial for beacon-based marketing campaigns.

While retailers fight an uphill battle with proximity marketing indoors, beacons may gain traction more quickly in some very different settings where they provide more value to end users. In addition to Barclay’s new trial, non-retail scenarios where beacons could prove valuable include:

  • Museums and zoos. Stand-alone audio narration devices are commonplace at museums and other attractions, but they’re costly for site operators to purchase and maintain, and they’re inconvenient for sightseers. Beacons could lower those costs and eliminate the need for users to carry additional equipment, and in-app purchases could enable site operators to continue to generate those additional revenues. And beacon-based apps could provide a far richer, more interactive experience than simply listening to a voice narration, which is one objective New York’s Guggenheim Museum hopes to achieve with the technology.
  • Stadiums and concert halls. Professional and college sports teams are increasingly looking to beacons to engage with fans inside venues, as Gigaom’s Barb Darrow wrote a few months ago, informing spectators of the location of specific concessions stands and the shortest lines for the bathroom, and 49ers fans can use them to order food from the nearest vendor in Levi’s Stadium. Similarly, music fans in the cheap seats of a stadium concert could automatically be offered unused, discounted seats closer to the stage, and venue operators can track users to manage crowds and concessions more efficiently.
  • Hotels and restaurants. Some upscale hotels are already using beacons to automatically check in guests as they walk into the building, to unlock doors to their rooms when they’re within a certain proximity, and to find their way to the nearest on-site bar or restaurant. And TechCrunch recently wrote about SmartTables, which uses beacons to (among other things) monitor table occupancy and remind servers to greet new guests once they’ve been seated.
  • Amusement parks. In addition to greeting visitors at the gate and delivering information such as the day’s event schedule, beacons could give real-time information regarding the wait times for nearby rides. They could also provide location-based information such as a ride’s height and weight limitations and whether visitors with certain health conditions should avoid specific rides.
  • Mass transit. Beacons may prove invaluable in airports, subway stations and other mass transit centers. Not only can they serve as a navigation guide for unfamiliar travelers, they can alert users on a certain concourse or platform about canceled flights or train delays. Los Angeles and other municipalities are deploying beacons as part of opt-in, anonymized systems designed not only to deliver location-based content (which will often include advertisements, presumably) but also to aggregate data that will help build smart cities.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) isn’t likely to become the predominant technology across all location-based scenarios: NFC may yet emerge as the default technology for mobile payments, for instance, and Wi-Fi’s vast global footprint and passive nature (it doesn’t require a native app) provide advantages for some proximity-based applications that don’t require pinpoint accuracy. But beacons have emerged as a viable, affordable way for a wide variety of organizations to engage users with compelling, location-based services. Businesses, municipalities, developers and others looking to engage consumers within very specific locations need to consider this emerging technology.