iPhone beside an Estimote Beacon

iBeacons and Assistive Technology: A Primer

Beacons are small smart devices that can give your phone or tablet a lot more information than they already have about where you are and what’s happening in the environment around you – it’s like giving your phone or tablet an extra sense.

Their most common use, at least so far, is for retailers to give you information when you come close to specific products in their shops – called micro-targetted advertising – but there are a myriad of possibilities for assistive technology uses for beacons too.

What’s an iBeacon?

“iBeacon” is Apple’s trademark for a technology standard that most (but not all) beacons use. Like your video player used to be VHS or Betamax, your Beacon is usually an iBeacon. Estimote are calling theirs “Nearables“. More generically you’ll see them called “Bluetooth beacons” or just, as I’m doing, “Beacons”.

iPhone near an Estimote Beacon. Phone displays a coupon for discounted shoes, which are visible in the background.
Micro-targetted advertising, sent to your phone just as you’re physically near a product, is something advertisers think is fantastic.

What do they do?

The intelligence in the system isn’t in the beacon device, the smarts are in what your phone can do with that information. All the beacons can do is sit there and shout “I’m over here! My name is 1251922 and my data is ____.” over and over. The “data” that a beacon emits may be static information that never changes (“The accessible bathroom is here!”), it may be programmed information that the owner can update (“MacBooks are $999 today only!”) or it may be information that comes from a sensor (“It’s 30 degrees over here right now!”).

Why do we need beacons?

Phones already have GPS for satellite positioning and that’s great when you’re travelling and need to know which turn-off will take you to Sydney. But GPS is really not accurate enough to know if you’re in the kitchen or the bathroom – half the time it seems to think I’m at my neighbour’s place – and it’s certainly not accurate enough to know whether you’re in the kitchen near the stove or in the kitchen near the refrigerator.

Your phone is very good at figuring out how far away from a specific beacon it is, and it’s easy for programmers to use that information to figure out where you are in a building to a quite exact degree.

Advertising people want to be able to tell if you’re near their brand of tomatoes or not, not just which store you’re in, and luckily assistive technology can use this same technology for awesome disability-related purposes.

Similarly, your phone can sense movement but only its own movement – beacons with accelerometers in them (like Estimote’s Nearables) can tell your phone how another object is moving, as well as whether that object is close to you or further away. Beacons with temperature sensors can report the temperature where the sensor is, and so on for other sensors.

This video from Estimote’s Nearables focusses on non-disability uses but it gives a good non-technical feel for what Beacons might be able to help with:

The possibilities here for assistive technology uses are enormous.

Articles in this series on iBeacons in Assistive Technology:

There may well be more, if I come up with more on the way! I’m very interested in hearing about projects using iBeacons for disability-relevant uses too, this can either be projects that are directly for people with disabilities or projects which could easily be re-purposed to be helpful to people with disabilities. I already have more than ten on the list, so leave a comment with links to any you know about!

– Ricky

Feature photo from JNXYZ Education, used with permission.

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