beaconLast week, Buzzfeed News published an exclusive report titled Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phonebooths, which quickly spread across social channels like wildfire.  With an opening paragraph like this, it’s easy to understand why New Yorkers were quick to panic and jump to 1984 level conclusions.

A company that controls thousands of New York City’s phone booth advertising displays has planted tiny radio transmitters known as “beacons” — devices that can be used to track people’s movements — in hundreds of pay phone booths in Manhattan

The public reaction and subsequently swift response by City Hall to have the beacons (approx. 500 of them) removed by Titan, the media company who installed them, proves two things:

1) Buzzfeed News has quickly grown into a respected source of real journalism

2) The general public is misinformed about what Beacons really do

As a result, we wanted to shed some light on this hot topic for our readers.  By combining the knowledge of our team with research from Business Insider and MarketingLand, we’ve put together a quick, easy to understand “Beacons 101” guide.


6 Things You Should Know About Beacons


Who uses beacons?

Beacons are used by retail stores and businesses of all shapes and sizes, primarily through partnerships with beacon vendors, manufacturers and installers.  Early adopters of the technology include Macy’s, Gamestop, American Eagle, Target, Shopkick, Best Buy and Major League Baseball.

Imagine if you were shopping in Macy’s and received a push notification for a coupon on winter jackets as you approached that section of the store.  As MLB stadiums implement and experiment with the technology over time, beacons can work in conjunction with the MLB app on your phone, which upon receiving a signal triggers a push notification letting you know that Mike Trout, who is currently on deck, hits 73% of his foul balls in the section you’re sitting in.

Beacon NYC Titan


What are beacons?

A beacon is a small, low cost and low energy piece of equipment that emits a Bluetooth low energy (BLE) signal to mobile devices.  These signals are transmitted to apps on those devices and can engage with them, triggering a preconfigured reaction, when they come within range of the beacon.


 Where are beacons?

Beacons are very small, usually affixed to the walls inside a business.  Here’s an example of how they may be laid out in a store you visit, taken from Estimote.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 12.44.03 PM

In the context of Buzzfeed’s story and the concern among New Yorkers, Titan installed Gimbal beacon technology inside phone booths around Manhattan.  If you see Titan sprawled across a phone booth, there is likely a beacon inside.

Beacon Titan NYC


 When was this technology developed?

According to Buzzfeed News, Titan installed the beacons from September to November 2013 around Manhattan.  Apple’s iBeacon technology first came onto the radar of the FCC earlier this year.  While the concept of beacon advertising is relatively new, the technology itself has existed for years.


 Why are beacons becoming more popular?

Location analytics and push notifications are two major uses for beacons that are enabling retailers to send coupons to shoppers while on-site, as well as gather data and track in-store behavior. Software (an app) works in conjunction with the hardware (beacons) to perform these functions when triggered.  In addition to that, beacons also appear to be a large part of Apple’s future plans, specifically for their upcoming watch and mobile payment systems.

Apple iBeacon is a new technology that extends Location Services in iOS.  Learn more about iBeacon here.

Beacon Titan NYC


 How do beacons work?

In order for a beacon to work and emit a signal to your device, there are two criteria that must be met.  First, the phone or tablet must have bluetooth enabled and turned on.  Second, you must actually have an app installed on your phone that uses beacon technology.

Here’s a description of how beacons work from Estimote, a vendor of the product.

Estimote.com how it works

A description of how beacon technology works from Estimote.com

Beacons have the potential to play a key role in enabling second screen mobile experiences and it will be interesting to see the innovative ways this technology can be implemented over time.  While we’re not totally sure of the intentions Titan had in mind with the network of beacons they built, we’d like to believe they wouldn’t betray the trust and privacy of New Yorkers.  Had the citizens of NYC been notified and educated about what Titan was doing around the city in a more transparent matter, the public backlash may not have been so severe.  Beacon technology, if implemented correctly, does not have to be intrusive and can truly enhance user experience.  Historically, it’s not unusual for the masses to be skeptical and somewhat hesitant to embrace new, unfamiliar technology, especially if they don’t have a clear understanding of how it works.  Three years from now we may be laughing about all of this, incapable of remembering life before beacons.  Until that day comes, we hope that this post has been helpful in clearing up some of the uncertainty surrounding them.