If you’re still wondering when the future will get here, stop looking to the skies for flying cars and look down at your iPhone the next time you walk into an Apple store. The company has just kicked off a new in-store tracking initiative that uses Bluetooth to push offers and notifications to customers as they wander through the aisles looking at Beats headphones and One Direction phone cases.
Known as iBeacon, the system uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to push notifications to users in the store who are carrying iOS 7 devices with the Apple Store app installed. Users must allow the app to track them in order to receive the notifications, but once that option is enabled, a user might find herself receiving offers for a short-term discount on a particular product or an upgrade to a new iPhone.
The technology behind iBeacon is somewhat similar to near-field communications (NFC) in that it transmits information over short distances, but it has some significant differences, as well. The iBeacon system relies on a network of wireless transmitters installed in various environments–such as Apple stores or malls or ballparks–that can send customized offers and other information to devices that have specific apps installed. So, for example, a user who walks into Yankee Stadium with the MLB app installed–which is iBeacon-enabled–could get an interactive guide to the stadium or information on food and drink specials at various concession stands.
This is the kind of location- and context-aware advertising and tracking that privacy advocates have been concerned about for many years now. The current generation of smart phones all come with the GPS technology built in that enables some kinds of tracking, but the iBeacon system is a separate animal. It can be used for many different functions and users need to allow their apps to track them in order for the kind of use cases like the Apple Store experience to work.
The iBeacon system and others like it could be expanded for use in a number of other environments, as well, such as public transportation systems, public buildings or other areas.