The Signal

A conversation about communication,
safety and making families work

The power of beacons: How one device can help your family communicate


By J.R. Williams

We’ve already seen how beacons — physical devices that send hyperaccurate location data to your smartphone for real-world applications — are changing experiences in schools, workplaces and famously, retail. There’s more to come in that space, with mobile payments a clear avenue.

The possibilities of the technology are without boundary. Estimote, a company that makes beacons and a FamilySignal partner, often posts remarkable real-world solutions involving microlocation to their blog, including this one:

“A consumer going about her day will experience moments that make life magical: a home that “wakes up” as she does. A latte ready for pickup the moment she arrives at her favorite cafe. A conference room that automatically books itself when she enters. An automated message sent to her friend when she leaves the office. And yes, a highly relevant branded ad when she meets that friend at a store. Over the next few years, the manner in which smart screens adapt to your journey through the physical world will completely change how you conduct your daily life.”

So what about integrating the technology our family lives? Can beacons give parents peace of mind? Yes. Can they give them powerful contextual tools about the status of family members? Yes. Can they definitively rule on who gets to ride shotgun in the family truckster? No. Not yet, anyway. Beacon technology can help parents find the balance between free-range kids and helicopter moms and dads.

Let’s talk in more concrete hypotheticals. With a beacon, it’s possible for a parent to know whether their child is on his or her bike, whether the child is in a particular classroom at school, on the school bus, at the dinner table, in their bedroom or in their first car.

The implications are going to be unique for every family’s circumstance — personal activity levels, the age of the child, the number of children. But the bottom line is a beacon takes the guesswork and hassle out of many of our routine family queries, like whether Dad dropped off the youngest at school.

So how does it work? Estimote’s geometrically shaped beacons are small, lightweight, powered by a coin battery and use a technology called Bluetooth low energy that communicates with a smartphone. They have sticky backs that mean they can be both anywhere and out of the way. Estimote stickers, thinner versions of their big-brother counterparts about the size of a quarter, make this even easier.

When a phone gets near a paired beacon, it knows its location in space within a few feet. That can trigger endless actions and smart alerts, such as the bicycle example.

The goal isn’t to reduce family interactions, it’s to improve the quality of those interactions. When Mom knows the sixth-grader didn’t miss the morning school bus, they can both focus on the day ahead instead of fretting about where the other is, waiting on text messages or wondering if their voicemail was received. That’s less time spent squabbling and more time discussing the real content of our lives.

J.R. Williams

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