Beacons And The State Of Hyperlocal At SXSW

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, March 30, 2015

The beautiful city of Austin recently held its annual South by Southwest festival (SXSW). It’s a smorgasbord for all the senses and a playground for marketers, technologists, influencers, and thought leaders alike — pretty much anyone who’s interested in anything cool. It’s the place to be at this time of year.

Of course, as a marketer myself, I’ve kept tabs on the chatter surrounding the festival, interested to see what new “thing” has emerged that will shake up the industry. I’ve got to admit, nothing really stood out to me this year, despite the buzz surrounding the Meerkat live-streaming app. However, what unexpectedly piqued my interest was something I read in passing about a still relatively new-ish technology used to enhance the overall festival-goer experience.

So what is this technology I speak of? Beacons.

For those of you who don’t know what beacons are, here’s a simple description. They are little Bluetooth-enabled gadgets that “speak” to people’s phones and other smart devices, doing anything from pushing location-specific ads to users wherever they roam to giving people insight into who else is around them at all times. Yes, it sounds a little creepy, but the opportunity it presents to create truly immersive digital experiences is fascinating.  



Media have suggested that this year’s festival was home to the world’s largest beacon installation ever, with over 1,000 beacons across 265 festival venues — with the specific purpose to help people more efficiently network with each other. In other words, via the conference app, attendees had a simple means to easily connect with anyone else around them, essentially tearing down the (virtual) walls between them. It was networking in its most extreme, direct, and guerilla-style form. That’s precisely what caught my attention.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s leave all privacy matters aside. It’s a big part of the “debate” surrounding beacons, but it’s not something I’ll deal with here. Instead, I’d like to think about the implications of technology like this with regard to bridging the real and digital worlds. It’s a transformative space that will ultimately shape how brands, media, and technology companies approach next-gen digital experiences.

I could see this trend move consumer culture in one of two directions.

First, it could drive people further into the mesmerizing depths of their phones, tablets, and computers, creating a digital-dependent environment that feels more “real” than the real world itself. This would be the end result of technology progressing on a dizzying continuum towards the promise of AI, providing solutions to our daily lives before we even have time to think about needing (or wanting) them. Not that I’m trying to insinuate fears of a dystopian future, but it’s relatively safe to say that there could be correlation between the sophistication of technology and our growing reliance on it.

Secondly, I could conceivably see this being a variation on the theme above, but one that’s generally much less invasive. As opposed to plunging us deeper into our devices, the growth and prevalence of seamless technologies à la beacons could became so pervasive in our lives that we barely even notice our use of technology any more. It’s a move towards “wrap around” digital experiences that are so embedded in our daily interactions, the line between where “digital” starts and stops essentially becomes blurred. And while this may sound like a passive approach for embracing technology, one that could shatter the digital-real divide, it’s really more about acknowledging its existence and accepting it as the (soon to be) status quo.

Either way, it’s safe to say that the years ahead will be full of surprises!

So why did this catch my attention among everything else at SXSW? Because sometimes it’s what’s happening in the background that has the potential to make the greatest impact down the road. And while the “world’s largest” installation of beacons at SXSW is news in and of itself, I think we would all be remiss if we didn’t see the bigger picture: that beacons, and the underlying technology that makes them tick, have the unique potential to challenge, change, andchampion how we will eventually interact with both technology and the “real” world around us. That, my friends, is an exciting proposition.

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