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This Bluetooth Dongle Gives Screens The Smarts To Know You're There

Are we ready for displays and video screens that react to our presence? The "nearables" start-up Estimote thinks so.

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We're surrounded by screens of every shape and size, from shopping malls to airports. But over a century after the first cathode ray tube fired up, our displays are as dumb as they've ever been. They broadcast, but do not perceive.

Steve Cheney, senior vice president and co-founder of Estimote, thinks its time for screens to get a upgrade. Estimote has been selling Bluetooth beacons and stickers—aka "nearables"—to retailers for a couple years now, but the company's new product, the Estimote Mirror, is a colorful, tessellated dongle (designed in-house to resemble a Voronoi Diagram) that plugs into the HDMI port of any display, kind of like a Chromecast. The Mirror isn't for streaming video, though. It gives any display smarts and self-awareness.

For example, let's say you've checked in at a flight at the airport. Right now, to get on board, you'd check a departures board, scan a list of flights, then follow randomly placed signage to the proper gate number. An airport equipped with Estimote Mirrors, though, could automatically show your your flight number and show you the way to your gate when you walk up to any airport display.

The way all of this works is thanks to beacons, those little low-energy Bluetooth transmitters that companies like Apple, for example, use to push deals and alerts to your smartphone when you walk into a retail store. The Estimote Mirror is essentially a beacon with a powerful smartphone chip inside. Get within Bluetooth range of one, and if you've got the relevant app installed on your smartphone, the Mirror can pump out custom video programming, tailored to you, according to what information the app in your smartphone has access to. While Cheney admits it's a conceptual leap to expect users to adjust their smartphone settings to ambient tracking technology in the world around them, it's another example of how reality itself will soon be augmented by our devices.

Technology like this always raises privacy concerns, so Cheney is quick to point out that all of this behavior is opt-in. Screens around you will only have access to information about you if you have the appropriate app installed on your smartphone—and give it the requisite permissions. So if Nike, for example, wants to use an Estimote Mirror to let you know that it has the new FlyKnits in stock in your size, it will only do so if you have the Nike app installed and have opted-in. The customers most likely to be tracked by an Estimote Mirror, then, are probably already loyalists who have their favorite stores' apps already installed.

Still, even without an app installed, the Mirror can do some cool stuff in combination with Estimote's other products. For instance, walk into a Nike store without the Nike app on your smartphone, and the Mirror won't know who you are. But thanks to Estimote Stickers—little adhesive beacons that can be affixed to products to track their movement—a display with a Mirror attached could give you information on a product you're holding. Pick up a new pair of shoes on display, and the Mirror might automatically start extolling its features; flip them over, and the Mirror might start listing the sole's design innovations.

Estimote has been in business for a couple years now, and its beacon technology already suffuses the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it helps visitors with the Guggenheim app enjoy guided tours, and easily find out more information about what they're looking at. The company also supplies beacons to help passengers on Qatar Airways navigate the airline's home Hamad International Airport. The Mirrors are not in the wild just yet, but dev kits are available for pre-order for $99. So the next time you walk into a store, only to see a nearby screen to talk to you like you're in Minority Report, peek behind the display—you might just see a U-shaped Voronoi tessellation sticking out of the back.

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