Next-gen iBea­cons

Gary Mar­shall goes pan­ning in the river of ru­mour for nuggets of knowl­edge

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Ap­ple has been track­ing us all for some time: Pass­book uses your lo­ca­tion to au­to­mat­i­cally show you con­cert tick­ets, air­line board­ing passes and other use­ful in­for­ma­tion where and when you need it, and you can ask Siri to re­mind you to get some­thing when you’re at a par­tic­u­lar place. But that track­ing’s go­ing to be­come a lit­tle more an­noy­ing and pos­si­bly even a lit­tle bit sin­is­ter.

Ap­ple has dozens of patents around ge­ofenc­ing, do­ing par­tic­u­lar things based on where you are, and lo­ca­tion ser­vices, and the re­cently granted patent 8,996,030 makes its de­vice track­ing con­sid­er­ably more ac­cu­rate through the use of a “bea­con”. That might be a Blue­tooth low energy bea­con, such as Ap­ple’s own iBea­cons, which are rolling out in air­ports, su­per­mar­kets and sports venues near you; it might be an in­frared trans­mit­ter; or it might be as sim­ple as an RFID tag. What­ever the bea­con, it helps your de­vice pin­point your lo­ca­tion (which is handy for in­door map­ping) and then ei­ther do some­thing such as tell you about a spe­cial of­fer or stop you from do­ing what you want.

That lat­ter op­tion is what patent 20110128384, filed in 2009, is all about. It de­scribes how your phone cam­era could de­tect an in­vis­i­ble in­frared “kill switch”, an en­coded trans­mis­sion that pre­vents you from us­ing your cam­era at the cin­ema, at a con­cert or in any place where the own­ers don’t want you to take pic­tures (which, as am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers know, is a lot of places). The tech­nol­ogy can be used for nice things too, such as trig­ger­ing aug­mented re­al­ity apps or help­ing you nav­i­gate, but you can see the ap­peal for mall own­ers, cin­ema chains, con­cert pro­mot­ers and sin­is­ter or­gan­i­sa­tions with se­crets they’d rather keep.

The real dan­ger to iBea­con prob­a­bly isn’t heavy-handed con­trol freak­ery by the fun po­lice, though: it’s cack-handed tar­get­ing of advertising. The prospect of a rel­e­vant in-store coupon from a place you’re al­ready in is fine; the prospect of ev­ery high street or mall be­com­ing No­ti­fi­ca­tion Hell as ev­ery sin­gle shop tries to clam­our for your at­ten­tion (iBea­cons’ range can be up to 50 me­tres) is con­sid­er­ably less so. If re­tail­ers get it wrong, the only thing that’ll be get­ting killed is iBea­con it­self.

Ap­ple’s iBea­cons may soon get an ‘up­grade’ that could mean you’ll be pre­vented from us­ing cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions in some lo­ca­tions.

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