AUSTIN, Texas — Remember the Near Me app craze from a few years ago? At SXSW 2013, Highlight and Banjo were the hot apps of the moment. No one talks about them much anymore and they’re certainly not a presence here at SXSW 2015.
But there is a presence watching, connecting and ready to provide hyper-local information almost whenever you need it: iBeacons.
This year, SXSW partnered up with Vancouver, Canada, based Eventbase, a mobile even platform company, to build out what Eventbase co-founder Ben West told me is “the largest beacon deployment ever done at an event.” They literally installed over 1,000 beacons, which come in two sizes: a palm-sized $35 AAA battery-powered device and a little blue one only a bit larger than a quarter. These beacons use Bluetooth Low Energy technology to connect with SXSW attendees who have downloaded the SXSW Go app.
“iBeacon is a fairly new technology in the event space,” said West, “It provides a new way to interact with content and attendees.”
It also provides some functionality that may be quite familiar to anyone who used on of those Near Me apps.
So in addition to to notifications about who is, for example lining up to hear Al Gore speak and easily find all the social conversations (tweets) revolving around the session, SXSW Go uses the iBeacon technology to help attendees easily network. If you opt in to being visible (it’s very easy to opt out), other attendees can see where you are in the convention hall, you can see interesting people near you and attendees can even message each other with the app’s built-in messaging platform.
You can also search for attendees based on interest. This works better if attendees enter their own interest-related meta data.The SXSW Go app with iBeacon-enabled Near Me technology includes recommended connections and connections in your hyperlocal area.
“SXSW is using beacons to propel smart networking by using proximity in a way that was not previously possible. Since SXSW takes place throughout the city, beacons are allowing us to use micro-locations and context in conjunction with attendee profiles to help people sync up in real-time,” said Scott Wilcox, SXSW director of technology.
Most of the iBeacons are dotted throughout the Austin Convention Center (they’re so small, you probably won’t be able to spot a single one), but there are also some along Austin’s bustling 6th Street, where many of the bands will perform during SXSW Music. Eventbase and SXSW have taken care though to adjust the system so that just because you pass an iBeacon-enabled venue, it doesn’t assume you’re there. “We look at how long you have to be in a venue to be considered ‘there,'” said West.
As SXSW transitions between segments, Interactive to Film and Film to Music, West told me, the team will actually have to reconfigure the beacons both digitally and physically.
On the back end, SXSW and EventBase manage the iBeacons with Gimbal, an administration tool that also provides security. They want to make sure no one can impersonate a beacon. West told me that has happened at other events.
The team is well aware that this is, to a certain extent, like Near Me 2.0. “I was here when ‘Highlight’ first blew up … but it absolutely blew up your battery life. iBeacons or BLE is very power efficient for meaningful discovery without blowing up your battery,” said West.