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iBeacon: What is it and why should I care?

Think Minority Report. Without all the weird eye stuff

You know that scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise's character walks into a clothing store and a scanner reads his eyeballs and asks how his last purchase is working out for him? Well, iBeacons don’t scan your eyes - don’t worry - but the results could be along the same lines.

An iBeacon is a small gizmo, about the size of a hockey puck, with a low-energy Bluetooth transmitter built in. It’s battery-powered and can run for more than a year before the AA cell runs out. And it sends out little messages which an iPhone can detect. So if, say, you have an app for an airline, as you pass the bureau de change your phone could alert you that there’s a deal for commission-free currency exchange. This is what Virgin Atlantic announced today, with iBeacons in Heathrow airport providing exactly that service: MoneyCorp is a Virgin Atlantic partner and passengers with the Virgin app can hear about offers such as this.

If you’re flying Upper Class, well, you’re probably pretty happy about that already. But as you approach the dedicated security channel for Upper passengers, your phone can receive an iBeacon transmission so that the iPhone automatically opens the electronic boarding pass on the handset ready for security to scan it. Handy while you’re struggling with your carry-on bags.

Virgin Atlantic hope to make use of the gadgets for their passengers

Apple makes clear that these capabilities are only there if you want them. Privacy is a big issue and you have to opt in to receive the notifications. And obviously, you don’t have to have the app on your phone in the first place.

Still, this is the thin end of a sizeable wedge – expect other companies to follow suit so that they can let you know about special offers or other ways to personalise your experience.

Reuben Arnold, Brand and Customer Engagement Director at Virgin Atlantic, said that the company has plans to extend this. “We’ve only skimmed the surface,” he said. Future plans include notifying an Upper Class passenger that there is an open appointment in the Clubhouse spa. There are also more minor benefits possible such as introducing the crew members on your flight as you board the aircraft – though you may feel you’ve got enough on your plate finding your seat, thank you very much. “Our passengers are increasingly more connected as they travel and by using advanced technology we can improve customer experience and continue to put innovation at the heart of the flying experience,” he says.

Fancy a drink? iBeacon might help you with that

In technological terms this is interesting because it’s Apple’s answer to critics who feel the iPhone should have NFC built in, as many other smartphones do. NFC (near field communication) is the short-distance connection which allows a mobile to pair with a wireless speaker for instance, just by knocking the two together. It can also be used in easy payment systems and although it may yet kickstart this, it hasn’t taken off yet. The iBeacon is pretty cheap – those pucks cost in the order of £30-£40 and can be left maintenance-free, resting hidden above a ceiling tile for a couple of years. And the distance over which it operates is the same as other Bluetooth gadgets, that is, up to 10 metres, much more than NFC.

Of course, its usefulness depends on what you want. If you fancy the idea of going to a football stadium and, as you walk in, being automatically sent information about that afternoon’s game, it could be of interest. If not, you might not want to turn it on.