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Apple's iBeacon gets fun

Apple's iBeacon location technology used to be for boring retail applications. Now it's showing up in consumer apps.

Apple's iBeacon system has been widely ignored and is poorly understood. Yet it's one of the most transformative mobile technologies to come along in the last 10 years.

The public's ambivalent or hostile relationship with iBeacon exists because iBeacon is invisible to users. And, in any event, iBeacon is presented as either a boring or creepy way for retail stores to track customers.

All that is changing. I'm going to tell you how iBeacon is being deployed in increasingly fun places. But first, let me dispel some misconceptions about iBeacon.

4 myths about iBeacon

1. iBeacon is an "indoor location" technology.Apple's iBeacon is beacon technology. Beacons are usually described as "indoor location" technology, but that's misleading. They work outside just as well as they work inside. Other location technologies, such as cell tower triangulation and Wi-Fi-based location tools, also work both indoors and out. The key attribute of beacons is not that they're for use inside buildings, but that they enable very precise location calculations -- to within a few inches.

Beacons are inexpensive transmitters (costing as little as $5 each) that broadcast low-power Bluetooth signals, which specially built phone apps can receive.

2. iBeacon is for Apple products only. Any smartphone running an app designed to be compatible with iBeacon can be used with an iBeacon setup. That includes phones running Android and other mobile operating systems.

However, Apple's iBeacon technology is interesting in that any Apple device running the current operating system can itself act as a beacon in addition to accepting signals from beacons.

So it's not true that iBeacon is for Apple products only -- any phone can detect and use iBeacons. But it is true that, at present, only Apple products running iOS can act as beacons in an iBeacon setting.

3. iBeacons track you and harvest personal information when you walk nearby. Let's be very clear about this one: Beacons cannot receive data.

However, they can tell an app on your phone that your phone is very close to the beacon. But it's your phone that's sending that information -- the beacon can give your phone only its unique identifiers. It requires an app and a service to turn that identifier into something meaningful. If you don't download an iBeacon app, keep your Bluetooth on and give explicit permission to the app, iBeacon cannot be used to track you.

4. iBeacon allows the NSA to track your location. The iBeacon system is a horrible surveillance tool. For starters, as mentioned above, it only works if the user downloads an app and the user has to grant the app permission. Also: Your phone (and therefore your carrier) already knows you're at the mall, and it can probably tell you're in the Apple store. What iBeacon technology determines is that you're near the iPad section of the store -- and that information is of little use to the NSA.

Also: There's no evidence that the NSA has ever used iBeacon to track anyone.

Where iBeacon is popping up

Apple's iBeacon has from the beginning been associated with boring retail implementations, and those are totally unseen because shoppers aren't in the habit of running an app while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. But now iBeacon systems are showing up in more fun and interesting places.

One of those places is Starbucks. During the keynote of its Worldwide Developers Conference this week, Apple promoted a new iBeacon feature in iOS 8 that allows the Starbucks app to reveal itself on the lock screen when your phone detects an iBeacon installed at a participating Starbucks. If you have the app, swiping it up launches it. If you don't have the app, the swipe gesture takes you to the app store to download it. Apple is also using the feature for its Apple retail store app.

Pebble just added iBeacon support in its Pebble smartwatch. (Current users can download the new firmware, Version 2.2.) The watch uses iBeacon to detect how close a Pebble is to an iPhone. So you can use your Pebble smartwatch to find your phone.

A dating app called Mingleton enables people in a bar to strike up chat conversations without knowing who they're chatting with. If they decide to meet, the app uses iBeacon to home in on the other interested party, like radar.

Home automation systems are also using iBeacon technology. An app called Launch Here lets you place beacons around your house. When you approach a beacon, the app launches other apps on your phone. For example, when you plunk down on the couch in front of the TV, a TV remote app can launch. A beacon on the fridge can trigger a shopping list app when you approach it.

A new app called BeHere enables classroom attendance to be taken automatically. The app also lets students press a button on their phones instead of raising their hands to request help from the teacher.

Virgin Atlantic installed iBeacons in the "Upper Class" section of its terminal at London's Heathrow Airport. The beacon triggers the Virgin app to automatically display a boarding pass as passengers approach the gate.

Finally, you can download and install free iOS and Android apps that enable you to interact with iBeacons. Both apps are from a company called Radius Networks.

An app called Locate for iBeacon is an iOS app that tells your iPhone or iPad to transmit as an iBeacon. You can configure the identifiers. The app also lets you find iBeacons and get real-time distance estimates, plus it shows you the iBeacons' identifiers. It's a great way to learn about iBeacon.

An Android app called iBeacon Locate also identifies any iBeacon within range and tells you how far away it is and what its identifiers are. You can even tell the app to sound an alert when you come within range of an iBeacon.

Both of those apps let you play with iBeacons if you like them, and they can warn you about iBeacons if you don't. Either way, you're using iBeacons, aren't you!

Apple's iBeacon technology used to be boring. But it's finally getting interesting.

This article, " Apple's iBeacon Gets Fun," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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