Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bluetooth Mesh Networks for Retail

Disclosure: I currently work for SK planet, a wholly-owned subsidiary of SK telecom, one of the companies which sets Bluetooth standards.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) confirmed the introduction of new standards to support mesh networking via bluetooth. There were a few startups like Ubudu and that didn’t wait for the standards and these innovators are the first-movers in creating futuristic customer experiences with bluetooth mesh networks. Now that the standards are out, and it’s a watershed moment for IoT.

Bluetooth Beacon Mesh Networks

A mesh network could hypothetically extend the range to whatever distance you need. When a beacon is stand-alone it can advertise itself up to a few meters. Even with two-way communication (transmitting or receiving small packets) the potential utility of the beacon is limited to hyper-localised use cases. For example, while near a beacon in a store the client can request specific information about that location from the server; or, perhaps I could use my phone to turn on/off a lamp while near that lamp.

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Bluetooth Smart Mesh Network
A mesh network allows me to extend the range by linking the beacons together. It accomplishes this in two ways: 1) by routing directly to a beacon somewhere in the network to enable a specific experience (e.g. turn-off the kitchen lights downstairs); or, 2) by flooding the entire network or a subset within the network to create an experience using multiple beacons (e.g. set living-room to mom’s profile). Using a mesh network subsets can also be created allowing for unique experiences for connected devices within a specified subset of the network.

Futuristic Consumer Experiences

Smarthomes have been all the rage for a couple years now, and the new standards for mesh networks will accelerate that. However, there are some exciting opportunities for retail consumer experiences as well. Here are a few ideas for implementing bluetooth mesh networks for in-store experiences.

Custom Subsets or “Rooms”

Custom subsets are probably the most well known IoT use case that leverages a mesh network of beacons. This is the oft given example of Smart Homes: dad walks into the living room, the lights dim and TV switches to Bloomberg News. The living room is a subset within the network, and the settings of all devices within that subset can be adjusted to fit the preference of a user. Additionally, a hierarchy of users can be created (i.e. Dad overrides son) and those settings can be engaged simply by walking into a room.  

Experiences Adapt To You From Room To Room
In retail, you can easily imagine this being used to create unique experiences at furniture, luxury audio and video showrooms. The question remains, how is this triggered? An end-user with a smartphone application is the answer most of the time today. Whether or not the use is a customer or salesperson is another question. On the one hand, the lure of customising your own experience while in a showroom could tempt customers to download your software, it may be more efficient to create software for clienteling.

Shopping Efficiency

How much time have customers wasted trying to find products within large department stores, shops within large shopping malls, or the toilet? Networked signage could be used to assist customers and make their journey more efficient. A customer could select the target destination within an app on their smartphone or on a digital sign. As he travels through the store or mall, visual cues can be triggered to guide the customer on his journey. 

Signage Alerts When You Arrive
These cues can be in-app via notifications (“you’re going the wrong way”) or via digital signage (“Customer XYZ here is your destination”).  In this use case, a mix of proximity technology like geomagnetics or wi-fi would be the best way to guide customers. However, incorporating visual cues will reassure customers and probably create new opportunities to surprise and delight them.  

Personalised Signage & Electronic Labels

Networked Signage and Electronic Labels are another opportunity for retailers and customers. A label which displays a price with e-ink can dynamically display discounted prices to customers subscribed to loyalty programs or with a digital coupon. In fact the packet-size of data needed to display a price is small enough it should be possible without the internet. A networked electronic labels could dynamically generate prices for a section of a shelf, so customer can compare discounts on multiple brands.

Dynamic Prices On Electronic Labels
More dramatically, personalised media could be presented to customers at any digital sign. Digital Signage connected to a mesh network could request content from the cloud via the network.  

Dynamically Adjust to Audience

With enough connected signage and labels, retailers could abstract further to create experiences for audience types. For example, customers of a given profile at a given time of day within a given store could tend to coalesce within a certain subset of a mesh network. At the same time another group of customers of a given profile could coalesce within another subset.  This would allow for digital experiences within either subset to be tailored for those audiences.
Flooding Subsets To Adapt For Audience Profiles (Green vs Orange)

In Conclusion

Without a doubt the experiences retailers can create leveraging bluetooth mesh networks will be essential to the success of their mobile software. A few technology startups like Ubudu and Zuli, as well as large companies (SK telecom among them) are already moving to make bluetooth mesh beacons a commodity. Digital Signage will be the obvious choice for retail, but the real question will be what unimaginable use cases will creative marketers invent for mesh beacons? I’m not simply referring to engaging content on a screen, but beyond that what new devices will we connect and how will they create more value and efficiency?