Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

This post is written by Ravi Pratap who is the CTO of MobStac – a company that sells beacon enabled apps. As such there is an element of a sales pitch to this article; however, there is a lot of great information and advice about beacons which is why we have published it here on edgital. Enjoy! 

Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

iBeacon has been one of the most discussed and widely scrutinized technologies in recent times. With many industry verticals, from retail to events, hotels and malls to stadiums etc., having already made beacons an integral part of their customer engagement strategy, museums too are now beginning to adopt this new technology in significant ways. Some well-known museums already using beacons on their premises include Rubens Art Museum in Antwerp, Philips Museum in Eindhoven, and Groninger Museum in Groningen. As visitors are already accustomed to using interactive tools like audio headsets and brochures during their museum tours, beacons enable these tools to be replaced by their own smartphones, allowing for a much richer experience.

One of the most significant benefits of using beacons in a museum is to enhance interactivity. Beacons allow you to pinpoint a visitor’s proximity to the exhibit he/she is viewing and then send contextual information about that piece of art. Besides this, you can also increase interactivity by organizing games and scavenger hunts, or letting your visitors interact with museum experts/curators in real-time. The opportunities are endless.

That being said, getting beacons deployed in your museum comes with its own set of challenges. This is because iBeacon, like any other new technology has its own set of limitations and drawbacks and you will need to work your way around them (we’re conducting a webinar that takes a look at addressing them). Here are a few of the challenges you will run into as you start planning your strategy:

  • Installing beacons: For museums, maintaining a sense of aesthetic is of supreme importance, which will influence how you purchase and install beacons:
  • Beacon color and design: Ensure that the color and design of beacons go with the interiors, wall colors, and architecture of each section. It’s best to choose a beacon vendor who has a variety of color options, and a design that suits the aesthetics of your museum. Once purchased, you will need to install the beacons. This requires ‘identifying’ each beacon using their major number and minor number. The major number will tell you which section a particular beacon is in, and the minor number will tell you where it is in that particular section. While installing beacons, keep a map of every beacon installed, and its major/minor numbers so you can track these beacons later.
  • Beacon placement within the museum: Another important thing to consider is, where exactly do you place the beacons? Make sure that beacons are placed such that they are not distracting. Considering a museum can have a variety of wall surfaces, make sure the beacons you choose stick well to the walls. If you decide to use USB-enabled beacons you will never need to worry about replacing batteries from time to time.
Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

2) Accurate Positioning of visitors: A common issue museums face while deploying beacons is that since beacons transmit radio signals in the commonly used 2.4GHz band, the signal strength received from a beacon varies widely because of interference. Beacon signals are actually radio waves, and can be absorbed by metals, walls, water etc. Place beacons such that the signals are not obstructed by a wall/metal surface.

In an ideal scenario, you would want your visitors to receive a specific notification based on their exact position inside the gallery, down to the exact exhibit they’re standing in front of. While running a pilot with a large museum in New York, we realized that getting this micro-level of accuracy was difficult and error-prone. Close proximity of the exhibits in a museum means that it may not be always possible to detect which exhibit a visitor is looking at. To address this dilemma, a visitor can be sent a list of all the “close by” exhibits. The visitor can then choose the exhibit they want more information on. This approximate positioning works really well and provides for a smooth user experience.

3) Monitoring and managing beacons: A common maintenance task required of beacons is figuring out when a beacon’s battery has stopped working and needs to be replaced.

Since most beacons have no network connection themselves, it’s not possible to monitor beacons through a centralized system. You can either keep track of beacon signals using a scanner to see when a beacon has disappeared, or physically investigate using an app that is meant to gather this kind of data.

However, with a large number of beacons spread across the museum, the task of beacon monitoring is best left to a beacon management platform. A well designed beacon management platform will continuously track data coming from multiple beacons in the field, provide monitoring features such as battery left, last ping time etc., and generate alerts to aid with beacon operations in the field. This saves you from the hassle of scanning for beacons to ensure that they are working as intended.

4) Securing your beacons: One of the misconceptions around beacons is that they can be easily ‘hacked’. You can keep your beacons secure by following a few simple tips:

  • Have a unique password for each beacon; don’t use the default password provided by the vendor
  • Change major/minor numbers frequently and encrypt them
  • Detect unauthorized authentication attempts
  • Set up a mechanism that sends timely firmware updates and security notifications

Conclusion:

The best way to start with beacon deployment is to run a small pilot. Running a pilot project will help you understand the issues that come up during implementation of your beacon strategy.  A good practice is to start with a limited set of beacons and a few sections within the museum. Test how your app works and how it interacts with these beacons. Having a ‘closed’ and ‘limited’ project will help you manage it better. Also try varying the ‘messaging intervals’, test different kinds of rich media (audio/video) etc., to see what works best for you.

The most important aspect of running a pilot is to learn from real-world data and the feedback you get from your visitors. Following the steps listed in this post will help you create a successful beacon strategy for your museum. Have you already tried deploying beacons in your museum? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Author Bio:

Ravi Pratap is the CTO of MobStac and is responsible for all technology strategy, product innovation, and engineering execution. MobStac is a mobile platform company enabling location-aware apps for content and commerce. The Beaconstac suite from MobStac enables businesses to deliver superior customer experiences through the use of iBeacons for engagement, messaging, and analytics.

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One thought on “Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

  1. JonPaulLittle says:

    Hi that is an interesting article and many of the points resonated with my experience. As an IT product manager at Kew Gardens we have been running a pilot now for six weeks but I’ve been thinking about all things beacon for over a year now. I have put some blog posts out about the experience at Kew so please follow the link below. I have covered “a year in the life of the project”, “worries about data” and usage for visitors and “a six week update”: https://jonpaullittle.wordpress.com/

    Like

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