Over the past year, wearable devices (such as the Google Glass and the recently released Apple Watch) and Bluetooth-low energy beacons have garnered a considerable amount of press. Both products represent the realization of technologies that, until recently, seemed more appropriate for the domain of science fiction rather than real-life. And while several barriers remain to the mass-adoption by users that is necessary to both of their marketplace fortunes, there are multiple reasons to believe that the two products can work in harmony to boost their adoption across the user spectrum.
By working in tandem, beacons and wearables can provide increased convenience, awareness, and personalization to both individual and business users alike in the years to come.
The Landscape As It Stands
Both wearables and beacons are on the rise right now, with Business Insider’s Intelligence unit projecting there to be nearly 4.5 million deployed beacons by 2019. Likewise, the wearables market is expected to hit 149 million units shipped (annually) by this same time. However, as a percentage of the mobile device market, wearables are not expected to outpace smartphones and tablets anytime soon. In fact, smartwatches and Google Glass-type wearables are only expected to make up a minority percentage of the wearables market by 2019, with fit-bands and other "activity trackers" making up the bulk of the wearables market.
But this shouldn’t be seen as an issue; rather, it’s a perfect opportunity to explore how beacons and wearables can complement each other and incentivize increased adoption of both. Beacons are designed to deliver content to audiences via the screens that they prefer, and optimized for mobile devices specifically. Wearables present the perfect platform for beacon content, and the more available content being developed for wearable devices will help increase their applicability, function and value, therefore incentivizing more widespread adoption.
Besides, it’s not as if the two technologies are starting from scratch from a demand perspective. After all, nearly 75% of shoppers now use their mobile devices while in-store, with 20% of in-store business being conducted via mobile devices (and growing rapidly)! This isn’t to say that wearables are accounting for a large portion of this in-store usage at the moment; however, there is a clear and rising user demand for mobile devices that can provide some utility while users are in-store, providing a clear opportunity for wearables to prove themselves as the mobile device of choice.
As for businesses, beacons can be leveraged for both consumer-facing and employee-operations purposes, enhancing the in-store/workplace experience. Wearables can make these services even easier to activate, giving businesses an incentive to make sure their beacon-enabled services are compatible with the tech. Because of the uniqueness of different wearables, businesses will have an additional incentive to experiment with beacon-enabled services that leverage their novel features. Combine these incentives with the user-demand opportunity for wearables, and suddenly the picture for both technologies begins to look quite bright!
But What Are The Advantages To The Beacon-Wearable Relationship Over The Current Smartphone/Tablet Paradigm?
Obviously, the key to spurring wider adoption of both beacon and wearable technology lies in the ability of both to provide greater utility to users at a lower cost than what they invest into their smartphones and tablets. Otherwise, why would anyone put down the money for either technology? Fortunately, the beacon-wearables relationship has three key advantages over the current smartphone/tablet-enabled environment that is dominant right now: convenience, awareness, and personalization.
For convenience, beacon-enabled services are designed to deliver relevant content to screens that resonate with consumers; wearables, particularly smartwatches and other wrist-based devices, are better suited to "glanceable" moments, such as offers, coupons, updates, and other context-specific content that beacons can provide. As for the 20% threshold cited earlier regarding mobile devices being used for in-store business, it represented nearly $593 billion in in-store transactions in 2013, more than tripling the same output from the year before ($159 billion).
If beacon-enabled services can make in-store actions even easier via wearables, it’s very plausible this growth will continue to climb at an even steeper rate going forward. Additionally, the evolution of wearables will, ostensibly, lead to greater app development for devices, and with this increase in apps will come a greater demand for content and efficient ways of distributing it. For beacons, one of their greatest advantages is the efficiency and ease with which they can distribute content, creating a natural position for the technology in the wearables ecosystem as it continues to evolve.
As for awareness, the advantage is a clear. If a user is being sent a beacon message telling them McDonald’s has a 2-for-1 deal going on for McChicken sandwiches, which device is more likely to attract their attention: the smartwatch beeping and rumbling on their wrist, or the smartphone in their pocket/bag? Obviously, the wrist (or headset) is going to gain a user’s attention far more easily than a mobile device that is not physically tethered to them. This is, naturally, a great advantage for beacon-enabled services, as it will likely translate into more users taking advantage of the services, reinforcing the utility of both technologies.
Where the beacon-wearables relationship really "wins," however, is in the personalization department. Wearables, such as smartwatches, can provide personalized services to users in ways that other mobile devices can’t because they are in contact with the body. This opens up a whole new world of personalized communications between the user and beacon-enabled services, as the beacons are now able to pick-up on information being transmitted by the wearable that can be used to ensure the user is receiving the services most relevant to them.
For example, two athletes, one a cross-fit enthusiast and the other a long-distance runner, enter a sporting goods store. After they’ve entered the store, the beacons deployed within communicate with their smartwatches to see their heartbeat history and determine their level of activity over a given period of time.
Once this communication is complete, the beacons push out a different message to each athlete that relays relevant store information to them based on their historical outputs (the cross-fit enthusiast gets info on Olympic weight sets, while the runner gets info on the latest running shoes). However, the possibilities are essentially limitless here; the beacon-enabled services that can be designed and personalized for wearables are only limited by the data and user willingness to opt-in to beacon-enabled services.
The Potential Is There. How Do We Get From A To B?
Mobile device usage in-store is rushing past 75% now, and is expected to only climb higher; the demand for mobile services can be expected to grow with it. Businesses need to demonstrate that their beacon services are enhancing the customer experience. Unlike previous location-based services, such as Foursquare, beacons provide businesses with an intuitive way to provide value based on a user’s location via personalized content and relevant business information.
For wearables, devices such as the Apple Watch will serve as useful milestones for gauging user interest in the potential of wearable tech. Anticipation and consumer demand for the Apple Watch (and other competing smartwatches) means that this is the perfect time to illustrate the utility of using beacon-enabled services via wearables.
In order to take advantage, businesses need to factor in beacon-enabled service compatibility when designing apps for these wearables, or ensure that their software development partners are cognizant of the need. "Strike while the iron is hot" applies here, as users try to figure out how the wearables will improve their current mobile device situation, and whether it’s worth the plunge.
Fortunately for businesses, there is a non-existent barrier-to-entry with beacon tech for businesses. Set-up only takes a couple of minutes and, with the right software solutions, any business can effectively manage their beacon deployment with relative ease regardless of technical expertise. Businesses from Macy’s to McDonald’s have actively embraced beacon technology and the mobile services it can help enable, seeing immediate, positive returns on the pilot programs that are already in place.
Based on these early results and current mobile trends, it’s easy to see how wearables and beacon technology can help each other grow. It’s just a matter of businesses, wearables manufacturers, and content developers remaining cognizant of the advantages inherent to the beacon-wearables relationship and crafting their services/products accordingly.
By Robert Hanzcor, CEO of iBeacon startup Piper