Baseball's beacon trials hint at Apple's location revolution

CNET visits Citi Field to get a sneak peek at MLB.com's location-based services powered by Apple's iBeacon and Bluetooth LE.

A greeting pops up as you get to the front walkway to Citi Field. Roger Cheng/CNET

As we neared the threshold of the gates in front of the walkway to the home of the New York Mets, a message popped up on developer Chad Evans' space-gray iPhone 5S.

"Welcome to Citi Field."

After a few more paces, we encountered the famed Mets Home Run Apple in front of the stadium. Evans moved his iPhone 5S near a sign by the landmark, and a video popped up detailing its history.

Upon entering the stadium, another message popped up, this time greeting Evans as a first-time visitor to Citi Field. The stadium "knows" how many times you've been, and can fire off special coupons and discounts to fans who, for instance, make their 10th trip there.

"We're using location and our understanding of history to better serve our fans," Evans said.

The demonstration was part of a collection of location-based services using Apple's iBeacon, a new feature found in iOS 7. It uses a collection of beacons -- tiny discs a little wider and thicker than a quarter -- to pinpoint a phone's location by broadcasting Bluetooth signals. Largely ignored in favor of the graphical overhaul of iOS 7, iBeacon has the potential to change our experiences at everything from ball games to shopping malls, both an exciting and frightening prospect.

MLB.com has spent the last few months running trials to get iBeacon to work with its At the Ballpark app, which needs to at least be running in the background in order to access the new bells and whistles. The purpose of iBeacon is to allow partners to deliver information, coupons, and other media relevant to a person's location. At Citi Field, it's everything from a simple greeting to a discount at the stadium store.

MLB.com isn't the only organization working with iBeacon. Among the other high-profile names testing the waters are Starbucks, Macy's, and American Airlines.

After a run through, one gets a sense of where Apple wants to go with location and even mobile commerce, and perhaps why it has been so reluctant to embrace other similar technologies like Near Field Communication (NFC), which many others use to power mobile payments.

CNET's Bridget Carey activating a video on the Met's Big Apple. Roger Cheng/CNET

The topic of location-based services is often a tricky one to talk about. While retailers love the idea of targeting consumers who walk by their stores, there's an inherent unease associated with knowing too much about individuals. Some may appreciate the deals; others might be put off by the idea that anyone is tracking their movement. The idea of "opt in" is thrown around a lot, and MLB.com isn't different.

Evans said that his team purposely designed it so users had to have the app running (even in the background) for the alerts to work, which is essentially a fan opting in to the service. He said he doesn't want to surprise anyone.

The concerns haven't stopped others from trying different technologies that can track a person's location. Each of them have their own drawbacks. GPS isn't particularly accurate indoors, and quickly drains a device's battery. QR, or quick read, codes require you to open a specific app and take a clear photo, a fairly proactive and distracting task for most people. Even NFC, which many had pegged as the most elegant solution to bridging the phone with a wallet, requires you to tap a specific spot, and doesn't always work correctly.

Evans said he preferred Bluetooth LE over other technologies because of its flexibility. The discs can be tuned for a wide variety of ranges, all depending on the application. Only fans who walk through the door of the Mets store, for instance, may get hit with a coupon, while others who walk by wouldn't get harassed.

While MLB.com is still in its testing stages, the rough deployment paints a picture for the kind of services that could eventually be available thanks to iBeacon. Evans said that he expects this to be commercially available sometime next year, and eventually move to all MLB stadiums, but wouldn't give a specific date.

He added that many of the examples of deployments during the demonstration could be adjusted at Citi Field, and individual stadiums will offer different features depending on the preference of the ball club.

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MLB.com plans to offer something similar for Android eventually, Evans said, noting that Android 4.3 also offers support for Bluetooth LE. He said MLB.com opted to go with iOS first because iBeacon offered a solid framework of software development kits to work from, as well as a solid base of potential users. (Anyone with an iPhone 4S or later will be able to take advantage of it.)

While the tests primarily dealt with the delivery of info, MLB.com could see iBeacon and Bluetooth LE eventually powering things such as mobile payments, according to a representative. The company is actively exploring different capabilities.

"Your phone can serve as a gateway to all the experiences around the ball park," Evans said.

 

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