“iBeacon” is a new technology currently in the throes of the same questionable phase of adoption and experimentation as products like Google Glass, Nest, and many other technologies in the IoT/context-aware/augmented reality department. The iBeacon is interesting because it has a relatively low barrier to entry, it is a simple enhancement on existing location services technology, and it is already being implemented commercially. It also has a huge amount of potential for radically new and futuristic applications…and for imminent failure.
iBeacon is a protocol developed by Apple which allows mobile devices to communicate with locally placed “beacons” through Bluetooth Low-Energy signals. This technology can be thought of as a new and improved version of Apple’s Location Services, which tracks information about a device’s current location through GPS and delivers that information to a variety of location-based apps like Yelp, Google Maps, and Tinder. The difference is that locally placed “beacons” makes this detection much, much more accurate, allowing apps to track your precise location as you enter a store, pause in front of a particular product, or are standing in the checkout lane. (For some great further reading on beacon technology, see my list of links at the end of this post).
This technology is definitely “new” in a technical sense- but amidst the swirling hype it seems useful to take a step back and describe and qualify this newness, perhaps beginning with Clayton Christensen’s coinage: the “disruptive” technology. According to Christensen’s official party line, something is disruptive when it “allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill”. This definitely doesn’t seem like that kind of technology. This technology is much closer to what Christensen describes as a “sustaining” innovation. Rather than disruptive innovation which caters to the bottom of the market neglected by incumbent leading companies, sustaining innovations allows the incumbent to continually add more complexity to an existing technology and sell it to a higher tier of the market with more cash-flow.
Beacon technology is an excellent example of a sustaining innovation. Developed by the behemoth incumbent Apple, iBeacon technology is only accessible to users with a relatively new smartphone and a high degree of technological savvy- and is targeted to retailers interested in creating a flashy form of interactivity with a certain demographic of its customers. Particularly in its current stage, beacon technology is exemplary of the kinds of sophisticated, expensive and complicated innovations that Christensen describes as the antithesis of disruptive innovation.
However, I would like to pause a moment to consider how this technology compares to our colloquial use of the term “disruptive”. The term has expanded from Christensen’s original definition to include any and all new technologies that could potentially change the existing market dynamics of one or more industries. The iBeacon actually does fit this meaning of disruptive- perhaps better than many of the things that get labelled as disruptive on a daily basis. Beacon technology opens up any and all spaces- from your home to the museum to the subway- to becoming augmented, interactive spaces. It is one of very few commercially available manifestations of broader disruptive trends like the IoT, context-aware computing and augmented reality, and even if this particular early-stage iteration isn’t successful, it is a harbinger of even cheaper, simpler and more accessible technologies with basically the same purpose. It’s only real competitors are NFC chips and QR codes— but other than that place-based interactivity is still dominated by single-use machines (think cash register, ticket reader) and human actors who guide and assist our interactions with a given space. The realm of human-place interaction is ripe for disruption, and in particular ripe for connections to the increasingly universal multi-purpose interfaces we all carry in our pockets.
To describe this particular aspect of beacons’ newness in another way, you could call them “revolutionary”. Like a new Kuhnian paradigm, iBeacon technology opens up a generative new worldview. Since I’ve started thinking about iBeacons, everywhere I go I can’t help but ask myself…how could an iBeacon change my interaction with this space? In some ways the world suddenly seems more like a videogame, where suddenly walking through a doorway or picking up an object triggers a new pathway or layer of interactivity. With that said, although generative and revolutionary, this paradigm doesn’t seem to be incommensurate (in Kuhn’s sense) with the old paradigm. In some ways, this technology is so new and the accompanying sociotechnical infrastructure so…nonexistent that it doesn’t have many points of conflict with the existing paradigm. The only “competitors” are humans and single purpose machines, but because of the current narrow demographic reach of this technology, it will be a long time before it could begin to replace or significantly alter the current paradigm of user- place interaction. With that said, as the technology slowly “trickles down” and as new and unexpected uses of the technology are designed, perhaps this “anomaly” will become more of a direct affront that current the systems must adapt to. We can imagine that rather than being a kind of glitchy technological gimmick stores can choose to try out, someday microlocation technology will become the default and places without it will be at a relative disadvantage.
As one final dimensions of analysis, I want to consider whether beacons are a “radical” innovation. Given that this technology creates a fundamentally new kind of affordance and can even create a different kind of worldview, it definitely seems to have a potential kind of radicalness. However, this radical innovation isn’t so much within the technology itself as within the applications we can develop for it. Beacon technology is a protocol– it isn’t a fancy new device, but a more sophisticated modification of existing location-services technologies. Yet it is the very open-endedness of this technology is what gives it its potential to be radically innovative. It simple provides a new affordance which new apps can use to any number of different ends. Unfortunately, it seems that current implementations of this technology are highly circumscribed. Beacons are currently being used primarily for enhancing retail experiences by pushing coupons or ads to users. In this sense, it is being used as a fancy new way of pushing spam in users’ faces. This particular use is definitely not radical, and I would argue it doesn’t offer any compelling reason for users to adapt their practices or learn the new skills required to use this technology (ie, turning on Bluetooth and usually downloading an app specific to that location or a chain of locations). A recent Guardian article even asks whether this spammy use of beacon technology may lead to its eventual failure.
First principle of contextual computing: Don’t Be Boring (from the Estimote blog, a startup that makes the very cute beacons pictured above)