Google And Coca-Cola Probe Vending Industry Role For Bluetooth Beacons

Posted On: 6/30/2016

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TAGS: beacons, smart retailing, retail technology, Google, Dan Cath, Coca-Cola Co., Derek Myers, smartphone-equipped shoppers, vending machine beacons, Lindsey K. Nelson, Google's Eddystone, Eddystone lighthouse, Gimbal beacon
CHICAGO -- The potential use of wireless "beacons" to inform smartphone-equipped shoppers of nearby vending machines was the topic of the third technology-themed seminar at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2016 OneShow in Chicago. The session was opened by Lindsey K. Nelson, NAMA executive director of development, who thanked the Coca-Cola Co. for its sponsorship of the session. She introduced Google's Dan Cath and Coke's Derek Myers, who offered some insight on potential applications in vending for beacons.

Google, Dan Cath, vending
Dan Cath
Cath explained that beacons have been used to convey information since time immemorial. Before the invention of radio, smoke signals, watch fires and flags were employed by armies and ships at sea. The methods were effective if the addressee saw the signal -- and understood it.

"The context is the key," Cath emphasized. "Lighthouses are beacons that warn of navigational hazards, and buoys mark dredged channels. Traffic lights are beacons." All three are practical because mariners and motorists who see them know their context.

"Those are 'people' beacons," Cath continued. "What we need are beacons for your smartphones -- and these exist. They work with Bluetooth, and they're being used now in museums."

Short-range wireless beacons are small devices powered by a couple of AA penlight cells. "All they do is send one data item: 'I'm Beacon 123' over and over," the speaker explained. "They use a generic infrastructure, so once they're installed, you can do a lot of things with them."

beacon, Eddystone, lighthouse metaphor, Google beacon format, vending
EDDYSTONE: Google's beacon format was named after the UK's Eddystone Lighthouse, which resides on a dangerous rock formation south of Rame Head, England. Google chose to name its beacon project after the historic maritime structure because a lighthouse's signal is simple and one-directional.

The "user-facing" tasks of beacons include offering information and assistance, as well as navigation. Smartphones can receive and display GPS navigation data outdoors, and a beacon can offer a similar service indoors, in an airport or a store. "A beacon might trigger the display of a bus pass on the passenger's phone," he instanced. "It could help a traveler find a 'healthy' restaurant nearby. Wi-Fi can do some of these things, but the precise location data isn't there."

Google's new open beacon platform consists of three parts, all of them available at no cost. The first is the beacon format, called Eddystone in honor of a famous British lighthouse. This is the format in which the beacon sends its "I'm an Eddystone beacon" message. The second is the "nearby" application programming interface for developers; it runs on Android or Apple iOS smartphones to scan for beacons. The last is the proximity API, which provides access to a cloud-based map of all these little Bluetooth "lighthouses."

Gimbal beacon Wireless beacons have been in use for about four years. Cath recalled that early versions were deployed to accomplish a single task. Today, however, one beacon can be managed for a variety of purposes.

The Eddystone format supports three kinds of packet. Eddystone-UID is designed for mobile apps primarily geared to transit. "If a parking meter or turnstile's beacon is sending UID data, you don't need to download an app to use the service," the speaker explained. Eddystone-TLM adds the ability to send telemetry data, along with the UID information.

Potentially more interesting to vending operators and other retailers is the mobile Web type, or Eddystone-URL. This allows the point of sale to act like a Web page; Google's Chrome browser looks for these pages. Cath reported that there are some 800 million mobile Chrome users, at present. The power of this approach has been demonstrated at large tradeshows in which participants can use their smartphones to navigate among beacon-equipped booths. In sports stadiums, the technology could be used to help spectators navigate to their seats by using their mobile phones -- and the website could display a link to seat-upgrade offers.

Vending machines, including jukeboxes, are attractive to beacon developers, and Cath reported that at least one -- Gimbal, an independent company "incubated" by chipmaker Qualcomm -- is exploring the vending opportunity. (TouchTunes, the world's largest digital jukebox company, has been using Gimbal beacons for a year to create proximity networks that enhance features in its mobile app.)

Potential uses in vending are limited only by the imagination. Cath instanced "welcome" experiences, in which the machine thanks the patron; presenting nutritional and dietary information; fun facts -- maybe the history of vending; transactions, such as making a selection, or payment by means of a QR code displayed on the patron's mobile device; and analytics, including keeping track of assets.

Derek Myers, Coca-Cola, vending
Derek Myers
Coca-Cola's Myers observed that beacons help tie vending machines together into a "connected smart fleet" and facilitate remote machine monitoring. They can bolster seamless payment and loyalty-program participation, and enhance the value of venders as digital content platforms.

"Consumers tell us that they're generally positive toward technology that notifies them of offers, as long as there are two or three such messages in a day, he reported. "More are annoying. Consumers want these messages to be personal, and they want to download fewer apps."

Google's Eddystone system meets these desires, since it does not require running an app on the smartphone; the only requirement is that the user has the phone's Bluetooth transceiver turned on. The system can ask the user's permission to send a notification, and perhaps to monitor the location. Coke has tested the technology at popular concerts, in conjunction with the Shazam application (which analyzes a short sample to identify a song) as part of its "Share a Coke and a Song" campaign.