During the Major League Baseball season, San Diego Padres fans with an MLB app on their smartphones received a welcome message as they walked into the ballpark, along with news of where a current or former player would be signing autographs for a brief time before the game.
The technology that allowed that came from Apple’s iBeacon in conjunction with Gimbal, a San Diego spinoff from Qualcomm that’s trying to build a business around micro-location technology.
For now, the beacon business is in its infancy. Retailers, sports teams and others are treading carefully with pilot tests of the technology, according to analysts. They want to avoid consumer privacy worries and potential blowback from an avalanche of unwanted coupons/messages delivered to phones.
But proponents of the technology say it has the potential to revolutionize retail shopping and other endeavors including festivals, museums, conventions, public transit and even gas stations by providing a more personalized experience to consumers.
The Miami Dolphins used Gimbal’s beacon technology at Sun Life Stadium to message fans standing in a long concession lines that queues were shorter at concessions a short walk away, said Rocco Fabiano, chief executive of Gimbal.
“We have an app developer doing convention centers,” he said. “Picture the San Diego Convention Center. It could help you navigate around, find a booth. As you leave, it might help you find your way to someplace in the Gaslamp that has the right offer for you.”
Beacons can deliver product information to shoppers as they linger at a display. If a customer buys, say, an ice cream maker, the beacons could automatically deliver recipes to the shopper’s phone.
Gimbal makes beacons that use Bluetooth LE, or low energy. The beacons that Apple uses in its retail stores are made by Gimbal.
Qualcomm remains a substantial investor in Gimbal, but it does not have a controlling interest. An investor group that includes New York-based i-Hatch Ventures and high net worth individuals own a majority of the company.
The 35-employee firm sells not only beacon hardware but also behind-the-scenes software that allows developers to include security, analytics and other features in their mirco-location apps.
“We try to do a lot of the heavy lifting for our (app) developers,” said Fabiano. “We make it easy for them to use geo-fencing. We make it easier for them to do Bluetooth engagement. We make it easier for them to pull analytics off the system.”
Several competitors make beacons. Coming out of Qualcomm, Gimbal touts the quality of its beacons in terms of antenna design, battery life and signal consistency as advantages. Gimbal beacons meet the specifications for Apple’s iBeacon, which sets a standard for such things as transmission rate and format.
Bluetooth LE is at the vanguard of the emerging Internet of Things because it offers good wireless signal range at low power. On Wednesday, Qualcomm announced that it would buy British Bluetooth semiconductor specialist CSR for $2.5 billion in cash, highlighting the potential of Bluetooth LE.
For beacon technology, the top market is probably retail, said Sheryl Kingstone, an analyst with 451 Research. Merchants see the technology as potentially boosting customer loyalty. But they also are being cautious. They also want to know if consumers will opt in? Are shoppers who receive in-store mobile coupons via beacons actually purchasing?