With the “Internet of Things” (IoT) on the rise, we can now tangibly conceptualize our information spaces like never before: digital and physical lines have become blurred. The IoT makes this a plausible reality by having constant internet interconnectivity embedded in everyday objects. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the IoT is defined as: “The interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.”
As part of this IoT, technologies, such as beacons, have been developed. “Beacons are wireless devices utilizing Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE- Bluetooth Low Energy) protocol to broadcast tiny radio signals around them, allowing Bluetooth 4.0 enabled devices to “talk” to them within proximity of three inches to 150 feet.” In other words, beacons are small bluetooth sensors that interact with smartphones or tablets. Beacons are hailed as “game changers” and are “poised to transform” how organizations communicate with people indoors. Beacons are becoming popular among retailers because they provide customers with product information, deals, and accelerate the check-out process.
In London, beacons are even being used to help guide the blind through the Tube. The Royal London Society for Blind People teamed up with Ustwo, a design firm, to create Wayfindr, “…a system of Bluetooth-equipped beacons that guide the visually impaired through the Underground using audio directions.” These examples demonstrate the powerful capabilities of beacons.
Furthermore, beacons can play a major role in the creation and designing of seamless information experiences —experiences that transcend both digital and physical information spaces. According to a recent New York Times article, museums (i.e., very tangible information spaces) have recently started to install beacons. While the beacons can be seen as disrupting the sanctity of the gallery spaces, they also “amplify the experience” for visitors. For instance, beacons would allow visitors to comment, review, and post reactions to exhibitions and even individual pieces in a digital space. So when other visitors are in that same physical space, they can view the feedback and join in the conversation digitally — seamlessly bridging the gap between physical and digital spaces. Beacons are arguably capable of revolutionizing the in-museum information experience for visitors.
It is important to note that this current discussion of beacons relates to previous posts by my colleagues (see: Service Experience Design, Back Pocket Apps, and Experience Design for Art Fairs). It seems that beacons may be able to provide the technological underpinning to enable seamless information experiences in a myriad of contexts. However, I don’t want to hail beacons as the “be-all and end-all” technology because there are obvious limitations, such as not everyone has a smartphone or access to the internet. Nonetheless, the use of beacons in London to help guide the visually impaired through the Tube presents a pertinent model for UX professionals and specialists: use a technology that would traditionally isolate a group of individuals and make it more inclusive and accessible. At the end of the day, isn’t accessibility a foundational facet of UX? (See: Peter Morville’s Honeycomb)