How beacons transform the visitor experience

It is 2054 and a fugitive Tom Cruise is skulking around Washington – or trying to. Thanks to the city’s optical recognition system, he is recognised everywhere he goes. It was 2002 when Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report presented a dystopian vision of a surveillance state, its reach stretching all the way from the police department’s PreCrime section to the world of media and advertising. Tom Cruise only has to stroll by a billboard to trigger personalised advertising for Lexus and Guinness and American Express. Is that a far-fetched idea anymore? Not so much.

Location-base targeting

Data-driven targeted campaigns are already familiar in our online lives, but they are just as possible offline. Beacon technology arrived barely a decade after Minority Report, and with it came the potential for location-based advertising. It’s now entirely possible to tailor messages that trigger when a particular customer walks through the door of your shop. But who wants that? So far, it seems, not that many (customers, at least). Where the technology has really flourished over the past four years is not in retail, but in exhibition design. From the National Portrait Gallery’s Face of Britain to the Slate Museum in rural Wales – showcasing ‘all the drama of real people’s lives’ – beacon technology is everywhere. And that’s not only because of its adaptability, but because it offers curators a cost-effective way of creating an individual and interactive visitor experience.

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Beacons – how do they work?

It’s all down to some clever Bluetooth technology. Place beacons around a room and they emit a radio signal which an app can pick up via a visitor’s smartphone. As the visitor moves around an exhibition, individual beacons trigger content relevant to her location. This means displays are less reliant on static information panels and on costly digital hardware, which can be difficult to maintain and update. Beacons instead offer a simple and relatively cost-effective way of building interactive digital technology into an exhibition. All you need is your own app. And if your app is tailored to user characteristics – for example, if it presents different content to children or adults – then you have a fully flexible display. The visitor’s experience is mobile in every sense, and exhibition content can be layered as much as needed.

Adding digital value to the museum experience

But what’s the advantage of going digital? Well, for one thing, it’s already a part of the visitor experience, from buying tickets online to browsing collections at home. And digital technology is proven to be effective in reaching new and more diverse audiences – particularly younger visitors. After all, museums don’t exist in a vacuum. So much of our daily communication and content is digital that if you incorporate interactive technology you are simply meeting basic visitor expectations.

Yet digital tools also help you engage visitors who might otherwise drift passively around an exhibition. Location-based content can offer direction, as well as interaction. It can entice a visitor to explore. And it also gives you an opportunity to add value. Want to offer a takeaway? What if the visitor who wants to take photographs can instead curate and download exhibition images in a personalised app?

It’s not all about marketing, but data helps

And then there’s data. You can never have too much data. If beacons are recording visitor movement around an exhibition, then you build information on which elements are attracting attention and which are not. How long does a visitor typically stay for? Which content is accessed most often? The data you collect on visitor behaviour can inform design decisions and marketing strategies.

So with beacon technology we’ve already caught up with Minority Report. But in Bladerunner 2049 – the latest update to Phillip K. Dick’s vision – it’s mood-based advertising that dogs the lonely hero. Just step away from this one, and whatever you do, don’t give the idea to Facebook. Or maybe someone already did.

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