How Beacons Will Change Architecture

by Daniel Davis

This post originally appeared on April 7, 2015 on CASE and was co-authored by Andrew Payne. The post below has been recently edited for accuracy.

01 IndoorPositioning iPhone

GPS has forever changed how we interact with our cities. If you get lost in a city today, you don’t look up at street signs; you look down at your phone. If you want to hail a cab, you signal your location by opening Uber rather than by waving your arms at the side of the road. Many of the activities we have been performing in cities for decades are shifting thanks to this specific technology.

Perhaps more crucially, GPS has begun to change cities themselves. Real estate groups inside retail companies are mining spatial data from location-aware applications like Foursquare to decide where to place their stores. Similarly, city planners are looking at this data to refine their city plans. Recently, the New York Times described how Uber is impacting LA’s nightlife because people are choosing to drive less often. In a city like LA, something as concrete and as dominant as car culture has been overturned by something as minor and as invisible as a GPS signal harnessed by a phone application.

02 Apps GPS has changed how we inhabit the city. Left to right: navigation (Google Maps), hailing a cab (Uber), dating (OkCupid), and finding restaurants (Foursquare).

Yet the influence of GPS stops once you step inside a building. Typically it ceases working altogether, and when it does work, it lacks the fidelity to be useful in the context of a building.

As such, there are many researchers and companies vying to create the equivalent of GPS for buildings (which we’ll refer to as indoor positioning). People have been testing everything from optical sensors to magnetic and acoustic technologies. At the moment, there are many promises but little in the way of useful products.

In the past year, however, one technology has garnered a significant amount of attention: Bluetooth LE. Most of the hype has been fueled by Apple, who introduced their Bluetooth-based iBeacon standard for indoor positioning as part of iOS7 in 2013. Overnight, indoor positioning became available to millions of iPhone users. Apple upped the ante with the release of iOS8, which made significant improvements to their Core Location framework in an effort to create experiences that are more connected to and more aware of the physical environment.

While Apple has been successful at promoting iBeacons, we’re not ready to anoint them the champion of indoor positioning. The iBeacon standard is still not widely adopted, and other companies, notably Google and Samsung, are developing their own technology that’s putting the squeeze on Apple to continue to innovate in this market. Regardless of who wins, the release of beacon technology could (and should) mark a profound shift in the way we think about designing architectural experiences.

03 Beacon-illustration The anatomy of a beacon: a small, battery-powered Bluetooth chip that broadcasts identifying information at regular intervals. Image courtesy of Estimote.

On the surface, beacons don’t sound like a technology that will revolutionize architecture. Beacons don’t really do much. They are small Bluetooth devices that broadcast some identifying information at regular intervals. Basically, every second they send out a signal that says something like “I’m beacon 37." Your phone and other devices can detect this signal, which, based on the signal strength and a few other factors, can be used to approximate your distance from the beacon. Put enough beacons in a room and you can begin to triangulate your location. It is a simple idea that has profound consequences for how we use and design space.

When beacons were first introduced, the initial applications tended to focus on marketing. Companies could stick a beacon near a particular object in a store and when customers walked within range, the customer’s phone would receive a notification (provided they had the store’s app installed). The notification could be anything from advertisements to coupons. While location-based ad networks appealed to retailers, many of these networks have already failed, primarily because no one wants to turn their phone into a location-aware billboard.

A better use for indoor positioning is in making applications contextually aware. If your phone knows where you are, it can become an interface to interact with your surroundings. In an art gallery, an application might show information about paintings as you walk up to them. In your home, an application like Beecon knows which room you are in and presents an interface to control the room’s lights. In an office building, an application like Robin shows whether the meeting room you’re in has been reserved and allows you to book it. These applications demonstrate that making the phone contextually aware also makes the phone a part of that context. The phone becomes an extension of the architecture.

Wayfinding is another obvious application of indoor positioning. If you are visually impaired, this has a huge potential to change the accessibility of unfamiliar spaces (see video above). Even for people with clear vision, indoor positioning offers a way to navigate otherwise confusing spaces. The SITA beacon registry, for instance, will allow airlines to design phone apps that provide turn-by-turn directions to get from one gate to another. The research in this area will be further catalyzed by the FCC’s January 2015 announcement that wireless carriers like AT&T will have to provide indoor location data with 911 calls within the next two years. As a result, it is estimated that there will be billions of dollars invested in indoor positioning in the near future.