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Beacon technology has been one of the most publicized Internet of Things technologies for consumer-facing enterprise apps. A new paradigm around links could better connect consumers and workers with back-end cloud applications. The basic technology uses low-power Bluetooth modules to track users through stores, offices and factories, and push out notifications in context to mobile apps.
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A new system promoted by Google, called Eddystone, expands on beacon functionality through the use of links, rather than simple app notifications. At the Fluent conference in San Francisco, Jen Looper, developer advocate at Telerik, explained how this approach works and some of the best practices for implementing it into applications.
The biggest challenge with beacons is that developers have not figured out design patterns that are compelling to consumers and valuable to enterprises. The last thing consumers want is a new form of notification spam triggered by beacon technology. Meanwhile, enterprise architects need to identify use cases that create business value. Today, beacons app development is immature. Pioneering enterprises could increase awareness or attract the consumer usage of new applications with the right development strategy.
Making context useful
Beacon technology is one of many approaches for creating context based on location. They complement GPS and other location technologies. GPS is sufficient for connecting a user's context outdoors, but it is less reliable and precise than beacons are inside. Furthermore, GPS information only works in conjunction with an app installed by the user.
Another approach for linking physical objects with cloud applications is the use of printed quick response (QR) codes. But this requires users to manually scan the code. Furthermore, the printed stickers have to be physically placed, and they add another layer of management. In contrast, beacon technology can automatically push notifications to users. In addition, the back-end cloud application connected to the beacon can be dynamically updated.
Connect physical and virtual
Looper cited museums as one example of organizations starting to connect physical things with mobile apps. These are still in their early phases, and new approaches must be considered to make them compelling. For instance, many museums use QR codes to push background information out to users. Leading-edge museums are starting to use beacons that connect to dedicated mobile apps.
Developers should shy away from creating new one-off apps for users, Looper said. Consumers are already drowning in underused apps. Instead, Looper advocated that developers focus on connecting the cloud applications behind beacons with Web applications instead. "Users don't want to download apps," Looper said. "They want immersive experiences, and they want something they can take away."
As one example of this concept, Looper created a Treasure Box application. This approach directed users to a decorated box installation that can be unlocked by users to deliver a treasure, which can be taken home by users. This concept added an aura of excitement for users going through the exhibit.
Setting up a prototype
A good way to get started is to create a basic beacon project and study different ways of engaging people, Looper suggested. There are a variety of Internet of Things kits, such as the Particle.io Photon, that include a processor, Wi-Fi radio, and outputs for driving motors and sensors. She said she also likes the Estimote beacon, which is easy to integrate into the Photon, customize to the beacon protocol of choice and makes it easy for an organization to manage a fleet of beacons.
On the back end, Looper used the M.o.N.K.E.y stack with MongoDB, Node.js, Express.js and the Kendo UI. This was hosted on the Heroku cloud platform. The application logic running on the device was developed using the Arduino IDE, making it easier to focus on the differentiating aspects of the application.
Power usage and breakage are a couple of challenges with maintaining a fleet of physical boxes. Rechargeable batteries can keep costs down, but need to be refreshed. Looper recommended using solar cells or power cords. The actual boxes could be 3D printed for the prototypes in the early stages, so they are easy to replace. It's also a good practice to leverage a content management platform to make it easy to update the content hosted in the cloud driving this sort of application.
Prepare for linked objects
Traditional beacons only send out UUIDS. These basically connect back-end cloud applications to a dedicated mobile app. Looper recommended developers get acquainted with Eddystone, a promising new open source specification from Google that sends out URLs instead. This makes it easier to connect beacon to Web applications.
The Eddystone technology is still in its early days. It was first released to run on the Chrome browser for iOS and the beta channel on Chrome for Android. In others words, it only works for Apple users running a Google browser today. It's not clear why Google chose this particular strategy, except to possibly drive Apple to enable beacons to send out URLs through iBeacons sooner.
In the long run, this kind of capability could play a role in driving consumers to use more engaging, progressive Web applications. Retailers and venues could push consumers to mobile Web apps, with push notifications capabilities driven by beacon technology proximity. Alex Russell, a staff software engineer on the Chrome team at Google, said these types of applications start life as a Web application, and become progressively more app-like over time. This approach leverages new features being baked into Chrome that support push notifications and improved caching to improve the user experience.
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