By Graham K. Rogers
The idea of the use of iBeacons as proximity devices to activate apps on smartphones has a certain appeal. Originally many imagined them as ways to connect with users as they moved round specific areas, such as shops, but as with any technology developers have begun to imagine other ways these may be used.
iBeacons are low-powered Bluetooth devices that send out signals that apps can react to. Apple has several installations in its US stores, and rollouts of iBeacons have begun to accelerate there, with baseballs stadiums, museums and other chain stores taking up the technology.
So far, the use of the iBeacon in this part of the world has been a little slow. I ordered some iBeacons from Estimote several months ago and when they arrived I was able to examine them closely. I also downloaded some apps that were aimed at developers: to see how my own iBeacons used the signals; and to find any installations in Bangkok. I have tracked a couple in the Siam area, but (so far) have not been able to identify which stores or restaurants are using them.
A few weeks ago an alternative use of the technology appeared with Travel Radar: an app that helped those using airports to track the arrival of bags at an airport baggage carousel. This turned the concept of the iBeacon round as the user was static and could track a moving item: in this case a moving bag.
A new app has taken this idea further to allow parents to monitor children: ChildRadar. The loss of a child is visceral fear of any mother. It is easy to lose sight of a youngster in a mall, a sports event or any open area where hundreds of people may gather. It is estimated that almost 800,000 children go missing each year in the USA, although only a tiny percentage are victims of crime: most are quickly found by their families.
Children do wander off and have no sense of the dangers they might be in. Most such events are temporary and in a short time the mother (or father) and child are reunited. ChildRadar uses the iBeacon technology to help keep track of a young one.
The app is free and I installed this on my iPhone. It needs two Estimote iBeacons to operate. There is no information as to why two are needed. As I did not have a spare child to test with, I used my backpack, putting the two devices in an inside pocket.
When the app is activated, it searches for the two iBeacons and when found, configures the app. Apart from the slight delay when identifying the iBeacons right at the start, this was quick and easy to use. I did not have to type in (or paste) the ID number of the beacons, which made this straightforward and available immediately.
I tested the installation in two ways: by walking away from the bag and seeing the way the app display changed; and by moving the bag, then looking at the screen. There was no real difference. Initially, a green bar at the bottom of the screen displayed a distance in metres and a reassuring message. As this distance increased, so the bar changed to yellow and the message changed: "Your child is moving away." When I was further away (about 15 metres) and round a corner in a building, the bar was in red and displayed the words, "Your child is far away."
I was initially surprised that there was no sound as the distance increased to a mother's panic levels, but if the mother was watching the app screen, why would it? The difference came when the screen was off. Then the Notification Center displayed a warning, "Your child is going away". Distances were shown and alarm sounds were made. Eventually, I was out of range of the iBeacons and there were no further signals. When I came back towards my office, the notifications began again, until I was close to the bag and the screen displayed, "Your child is here."
For a parent trying to monitor a child in a crowded situation, such an app could allow an early warning if the youngster did begin to wander off, as children do. Once the child is out of range, however, the app is no real help, unless the kid comes back within range. This is not a substitute for a parent, this is an aide.
As I tested with my backpack, it is clear that ChildRadar has other uses. I sometimes carry a notebook computer and a DSLR camera. The loss of these would be significant to me, so I tend to keep my bags close. Airports, stations, malls and the like are places where a user only has to be inattentive for a moment and a thief could see an opportunity. Up to 12,000 notebook computers were stolen each week in US airports last year.
I was chatting today to a music student who carries around an expensive violin. He immediately saw the value of this app for him and his friends who may also have such instruments that are as essential to them as my computer is to me. He recounted a story of Yo-Yo Ma who managed to leave a cello in a taxi. It was returned with the help of New Yorkers, but a proximity device and an app like Child Radar could have given an immediate warning.
Although ChildRadar is intended for protection of children (and giving parents peace of mind), the way it works means that the other uses of tracking bags or other possessions, could be set up just as easily. The app is free and easy to set up. A problem might be finding iBeacons. These can be ordered online from Estimote at $99 for three. When I bought mine, they were just going into production so there was a delay in delivery. I checked with Estimote today and was told "Lead time is about 3 weeks now."
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.