What Are "Nearables," And Why Is Ideo So Excited About Them?

Bluetooth beacons enter a new interactive frontier with Estimote's sticker-size hardware

Last week beacon technology—sensors which can trigger actions in devices that come within range, increasing their spatial intelligence—shrank in size and grew in opportunity with the introduction of Estimote Stickers. Three millimeter-thick adhesives no bigger than an oversize postage stamp, the nearly weightless Stickers—dubbed "nearables"—are an impressive evolution of the egg-sized Beacons that Estimote introduced in 2013.

"Beacons are a little bit like URLs for the physical world," says Steve Cheney, cofounder and senior vice president. "We don’t know exactly how it’s all going to work out, from the experience level, but I think the apps you use the most will start to integrate beacon technology in a way where you assume it was always that way." Like the larger Beacons, Estimote's Sticker-sensors, set to ship this fall to curious developers and companies eager to take advantage of the internet of things, help apps "see" their surroundings via motion and temperature sensors that communicate with nearby devices via Bluetooth.

Possible applications range from prosaic to Jetsons-esque. When entering a movie theater, for example, beacons could automatically silence your phone. Place beacons around your home, and LaunchHere, a self-described shortcut app, promises to launch appropriate apps as you move from your coffee maker (start brewing) to your sofa (turn on Apple TV). Retailers like Macy's are already testing the waters, sending shoppers discounts specific to the department where they're browsing.

The design firm Ideo, which also happens to be an Estimote partner, has been experimenting with the hardware, imagining scenarios for settings as varied as museum galleries and hospital wards. Co.Design caught up with Joe Rizk, who oversees Ideo's partnerships with early-stage companies in New York, in order to find out why the design firm is investing time and resources in imagining a world rife with "nearables," the Estimote-trademarked term that Cheney hopes will catch on.

The challenge, Rizk says, is how to "create a space that comes to life without altering or manipulating the space itself." Rizk is optimistic about Estimote Stickers, and their ability to add convenience, functionality, and interactivity—what he calls "texture"—for three reasons.

1. They leverage the hardware in your pocket.
"In one of the cases that we designed for, it was a museum space," Rizk says, describing a scenario in which beacons were placed throughout an exhibit. By tying the sensors to your personal smartphone, rather than an audiovisual guide that you might rent for the afternoon, "we can suggest different content that brings [the experience] to life in a different way." That layer of texture, even as simple as tailoring content to first-time versus regular visitors, "is quite significant."

2. They’re passive, for the end user.
For users weary of updating apps and navigating notification settings, beacon technology is refreshingly low-maintenance. Experiences can "come to life without you having to manually do anything," he says. No more customer surveys, no more inputting preferences: beacon data has the potential to cut those corners. "For us as designers, the idea that you can make something cumbersome more seamless is really exciting."

3. They’re lightweight, in more ways than one.
Size matters, a truism that holds particular sway in the technology world. Estimote’s Stickers are both physically lightweight, which makes it possible to attach them to moving objects (for example, purses on display in a department store), and metaphorically lightweight to purchase and install. "It helps us be more nimble when we’re testing and prototyping," Rizk says. "It doesn’t require us to rip up floorboards or tear out the walls." Ideo has even started tinkering with the idea of designing a self-guided tour of its offices for clients and other visitors, using the sensors.

As for Estimote, Cheney says his startup is talking with airlines, retailers, and more about adding that layer of "texture" to customer experiences. Whether you notice them or not, these bite-sized beacons are likely headed your way.

[Photos: via Estimote]

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11 Comments

  • Interesting but what I don't see is the benefit of bluetooth on RFID and RFX. I have two Karotz with RFID readers and badges . Major benefit is actionate tasks without a keyboard or voice commands. I have RFX devices for temperature and sockets and a small app I made to control all that. I could extend it further but the real need is to have cheap sensors (temperature in oven, noise, movements) and a decent range unless you live in a shoebox with walls in paper. My dream was to design cuisine assistant but this tech will not help.

  • Spidermandrew Peter Barker

    Oh dear, I will also have to keep my bluetooth permanently switched on, battery drain and security risk here we come! (And yes, I do know about Lower energy use RFID)

    Ask yourselves a serious question: 'What problem is this solving'

    Coffee machine on, TV on, Silent mode on...Have I suddenly lost the use of my fingers!? and is saving 3 seconds improving my life at the cost of all this over-technification? My answer would be a resounding No.

    Notice if you will, the 'consumer experience' that always gets mentioned last, this is the pay dirt for the Tech companies, and if you seriously want to be bombarded with even more adverts pushing more products your way when you enter a store despite the already overwhelming assault you receive today, you're in luck!

    This is really all about targeted product 'introduction' as the industry calls it. I call it intrusion.

  • ememtium

    Am I missing something but these will only work when I have a specific app that's designed to detect them right? The info the iBeacon is transmitting is basically just a variable to fill a line of code, an 'if' in an 'if this then that' scenario... so will this mean I'll need a hundred and one different store, airport, museum... apps to be able to take advantage of these 'customer experiences'?

  • I think the vision here is that we will have moved beyond "apps" that need to be "installed", and rather focus on the idea of contextual awareness to create newer, more enriched customer experiences. Totally agree that needing apps, and even further, having to interact with them in order to leverage this tech isn't very seamless. I'm assuming they're thinking beyond the current paradigm of UX on mobile.

  • taqimolavi

    thanck you

    very very nice :)

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  • sakoiya.sh

    I want these. I have so many ideas for them. I think they would be cool in retail, fashion, art, etc sectors. Just think, they can be attached to garments going down the runway during NYFW. I've already reached out to the Estimote team! #futureofretailaddict #futureoffashionaddict