BLE NFC IOT OMG!?

We don’t usually have much trouble convincing those that we work with that film makes an attractive addition to any collection’s interpretation. Films are, of course, a widely accepted way of sharing knowledge; moreover, film-making is an effective tool for engaging communities. Layering film or digital media on existing displays can disrupt or complicate interpretation in demonstrably productive ways. And in ways which cultural organisations can readily appreciate. But, until very recently, installing digital media has been expensive, intrusive and relatively crude.

NFC technology in use at the Museum of London, 2018. Image courtesy of Museum of London.

Deploying digital media has, in the past 20 years or so, relied on cumbersome and expensive screen-based installations and/or kiosks. As a relatively young company – formed in 2013 – we’ve been immersed from the beginning in a brave new world of wireless communication technologies. Recent tech advances allow us – as a digital media company – to deliver content directly to visitors through their own devices. No doubt, this is an exciting development. In short: it’s the “internet of things,” (or IOT) you might have heard a little about, but applied to the museum and heritage sector.

Two particular technologies have, more recently, been pitched at the consumer industries as a way to market goods to customers within shops. These developments – in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and Near Field Communication – are slowly becoming part of our lives. Anyone who has used Apple Pay to buy their groceries has used NFC, for instance. As a way of delivering digital content into museums, galleries and heritage organisations, we think BLE and NFC have a bright future.

Both BLE and NFC deliver roughly the same end result – a link between an organisation’s physical and virtual sites. Subtle differences between the technologies suggest different pros and cons for different organisations. To help you think through using this tech, the following table will help.

BLE

NFC

What is it?

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons transmit signals that are picked up by BLE-enabled mobile devices.

What is it?

Near Field Communication tags transmit signals that are picked up by NFC-enabled smartphones.

Bluetooth is almost universally included in mobile devices, including tablets and laptops

Less universal, though most recent smartphones are NFC-capable.

Matchbox size

Postage stamp size and thickness

A range of 0-75 meters

A range of c. 4cm. A user needs to be very close to transmit signal (i.e., a tap).

User experience

BLE beacons constantly transmit a signal which can be apprehended by multiple users. Working with either a bespoke app or urls, the signal prompts “events” on a user’s device.

The range of distances makes beacons applicable to a variety of museum tasks: e.g. a long range beacons (c. 5M) might inform users that they are in a specific location

Alternatively, a shorter range beacons (c.<1M) might alert users to a specific object.

Working together, these two beacons would inform a user that they were in a specific location looking at a particular object.

User experience

A visitor observes a NFC tag with a physical call to action – typically a label with the instruction to “tap here.”

The NFC tags transmit their message to an NFC-enabled phone when the device is c.4cm from the tag.

The tag’s message is usually url-based, taking users to external website.

Passive use

Users passively receive notifications delivered by BLE beacons in an installation.

Active use

Users control their response – including timing and level of engagement – based on a call to action.

Location

Distance (far, medium, near) can be measured by users’ phones to BLE beacons – enabling, for instance, guided tours through app development.

Location

User must interact in order for NFC tag to work. Therefore no real location services.

Security

BLE beacons are very secure. They only transmit one way. Also url-based signals will only work with secure urls.

Security

Secure and insecure urls are permitted.

Energy

Requires battery replacement every 2-5 years

Energy

No energy required.

User data privacy

Potential for app to trace visitors movement around space regardless of direct interaction.

User data privacy

Users must engage with tags in order for any tracking to take place.

Other metrics

BLE beacons can be configured to measure and report movement, humidity and temperature, thereby providing useful metrics for museums, galleries and heritage spaces

No other metrics

Price

Beacons can be bought for c.£20

Price

<£1 per tag unit

This isn’t an exhaustive list but it may be useful to sketch out how these, seemingly similar, techs differ and, subsequently, how the specific needs of different organisation might determine the use of one tech or another. The commissioning of a guided tour app would suggest a BLE beacon installation, for instance; a new interpretation scheme involving digital media linked to physical assets, however, could be delivered simply and cost-effectively with NFC tags. Though most commissioned installations would probably require a mixture of technologies working together.

Despite the widely heralded “internet of things” a couple of years ago, these technologies are still relatively rare and I wonder why that is? It could be that a killer application of the tech is still to be discovered. For us at Belle Vue both BLE and NFC offer the ability to develop interpretation that doesn’t rely on costly hardware – screens etc – and that makes the technology really interesting and very cost effective in comparison to the kiosk hardware of yesterday.

We’d be really interested to hear how organisations have deployed these technologies and challenges and opportunities. Please contact us if you want more information about our work with BLE and NFC.