Bluetooth beacon advocate Kontakt.io, a Polish firm that has grown steadily in the past few years, announced three new beacon designs last week, as well as opening its platform up to third-parties. It’s a big bit of news for the company, but the beacons market has gone notably quiet in the past year, despite the entrance of Bluetooth 5.
After six years, Kontakt.io is releasing its first bracelet-based beacon. Called the Bracelet Tag (BT18-3), the unit has a panic button, motion sensor, and temperature sensor. The company says this makes it ideal for patient monitoring in elderly care facilities and hospitals, as well as for other monitoring systems such as schools and workplaces.
With enough beacon units installed in a given location, the BT18-3 would let a customer track the wearable beacons as they move around. Priced at $29 each, the beacons are definitely an affordable option. The units cost more when linked to Kontakt.io’s cloud platform, but that service lets you integrate the data into your own applications. You could do that yourself, of course, but the firm is charging about $9 per year per device to do so, based on the initial pricing.
The second device the firm unveiled was that CT18-3, or the updated version of the older CT16-2 Card Tag. The card-shaped beacon is IP65 rated, and like the bracelet, has the button, motion sensor, and temperature sensor. It os designed to act as an ID card, aimed at the hospitality industry, education, and workplace access. This would allow a customer to track people within their campus, as well as respond to those emergency button pushes.
The third device is more on the infrastructure side of things – the Tough Beacon (TB18-2). Rated as IP65 compliant, and again temperature and motion sensor enabled, Kontakt.io says that it has a 7-year battery life on a one-second interval. Designed for outdoor usage, including asset tracking, wayfinding, and condition monitoring, Kontakt.io says that RWE, the German energy firm, is a customer.
Perhaps the biggest bit of news is the opening of the Kontakt.io cloud platform, which will now allow third-party Bluetooth devices to send messages to it. Previously, the platform was only for Kontakt.io’s devices, but now that others can get involved, it could open the service up to a lot more customers – that might be wary of single-supplier lock-ins, or simply need devices that the company doesn’t make.
The company says that it opened things up because it recognized the need for open and flexible platforms, as part of scalable location solutions. The Firmware Kit is key, as that provides the code that lets those other devices talk to the cloud. This allows Kontakt.io gateways to service other Bluetooth devices, and potential the opposite too. The company is moving towards a more open ecosystem, which is wise given that islanded approaches are not long for the IoT world.
Bluetooth beacons are definitely a transformative technology, however, they are extremely dependent on support from the two main smartphone platforms – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. To provide the user experience that its supporters advocate, standalone smartphone applications have to be avoided at all costs. They work sufficiently for things like airport or tradeshow applications, where other location-specific functions can be added, but such standalone apps are not going to support the vision of the future where users can move seamlessly through a city receiving beacon-based location services.
For certain groups, such as the vision impaired, beacons are an invaluable accessibility tool, but they can easily be used for events. But until Apple and Google bring beacon integrations to the fore in their mobile operating systems, the ecosystem will remain stifled. Beacons might take root in certain areas, such as business or education campuses, conferencing centers, and hotels, but these islands have no hope of becoming interlinked by beacons until they are a core element of the smartphone experience.
Retail was an early adopter, but there has always been a fear that push-notifications were rife for abuse. A shopper walking past a store they have no interest in will react poorly if sent an unsolicited advert. If abused, a consumer only has to flip a toggle within the OS, and that will be the end for them in the beacon ecosystem.
Sure, an OS-layer that would provide ways to opt-in to relevant promotions could help here, but that would require either the consumer manually filling all those options out, or handing that decision over to the OS – a potential invasion of privacy that doesn’t sit comfortably in this GDPR world. Having an OS trawl installed applications and authorized social media accounts could work, but there are clear privacy concerns here.
So what protocols are consumers going to be using in the smart city of the near future? Bluetooth and WiFi will remain the primary protocols used to interact with people in proximity, namely because they provide an amount of certainty that the person you are trying to reach is actually nearby – something that is less certain if you were using WAN protocols, like cellular, trying to do their best at indoor or urban location. Other PAN options like Zigbee are not going to be chosen because the smartphones lack the support for them.
NFC remains popular for payment systems, and there’s an argument that you could also use NFC for access functions too – removing the need for physical keys and passes and moving those functions into the smartphone. NFC has the backing of the payments industry, which is very conscious of security, and so that credibility should gain it sway with those firms that want to prevent the wrong people going through doors.
In terms of payments, the smartphone platforms are still somewhat fragmented. Within a few years, the Point-of-Sale providers should have gained enough penetration for it not to matter which smartphone a consumer has, but there’s an awkward period to traverse in the meantime.
That point brings us on to the future of cash in a smart city. Cash usage among younger consumers is falling, and there has been a lot of startup investments in companies looking to provide infrastructure and applications to make it easier to pay without cash. Card-acceptance among traders is at all time highs, and governments are very keen to move towards fully digital transactions, as it would be a great way to ensure taxation compliance. Of course, privacy advocates will cling to cash, but it doesn’t seem like we are that far away from being able to go a week without needing to take a wallet from a pocket – paying for everything via a smartphone, should we want to.