The Velvet Principle

Wayfinding and The Internet of Things

iBeacons, RFID, GPS, Wi-Fi, QR Codes and all that Jazz

Published on Wednesday 29 April 2015


Talk about the Internet of Things seems to be everywhere at the moment – in this post we explore what it’s all about and what wayfinding practitioners should make of it all.

Essentially the Internet of Things involves incorporating sensors and communications tech within the objects around us, to enable them to record and transmit data. In this respect wayfinding information has benefited from the Internet of Things for a little while. The embedded GPS chipset in our smart phones has enabled us to use various mapping applications to navigate. We’ve been scanning QR codes to connect us with information on the web and those of us with NFC (Near field Communication) enabled phones have been using RFID technology to tap and access content.

But it’s beacon or iBeacon (Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE) technology that is currently generating a lot of excitement.  Beacons are relatively low cost, low energy transmitters that for example, will automatically send data to a smart phone that comes within range. A quick Google search will uncover a number of case studies, from retail applications that push promotional messages to your phone as you near a product, to museums feeding through information about the exhibit in front of you.

Not only does beacon technology enable a more accurate fix on your location within a defined space, compared to GPS, it also trumps Wi-Fi in its ability to transmit through walls.  So are Beacons the answer to personalised digital wayfinding and interpretative information solutions?

Like most things in life, it’s not that simple. The examples above only work if the visitor has previously downloaded the accompanying app and switched on their Bluetooth. Then there’s the relative density to consider - the more items you want to provide information about, the greater the number of beacons you need. This has an obvious impact on cost, but if beacons are placed too close together, there is the risk of misalignment between the content that is delivered and the artefact of interest. There is also the on-going maintenance to consider. Although the beacons use low energy Bluetooth, they are powered by batteries with an average lifespan of two years.  

As the technology of the moment, over the coming months we can expect to see a number of different applications in the wayfinding and interpretative information arena using beacons.  But we shouldn’t lose sight of the broader Internet of Things opportunity offered by different technologies. 

Examples of existing wayfinding implementations include City ID’s Birmingham Interconnect project, which integrates legible city wayfinding with live public transport status feeds. Although unable to identify whether the technology has been deployed, we’re fascinated by Point Sign, created by New York agency Breakfast which combines physical and digital to create a dynamic system that can be configured to respond to different data streams. Or SmartWalk, which uses digital projections to display live wayfinding information on different surfaces.

Ultimately, the exciting thing about all these technologies is the novel applications that might emerge from developers exploring the potential.  Many won’t succeed, some will be the jumping point for other ideas and one or two will take the market by storm. So brace yourself for some interesting developments over the coming months and years.

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City ID - Birmingham Interconnect Point Sign - Dynamic Sign SystemSmartWalk - Projected Wayfinding Information