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Proximity tech takes off via Apple's iBeacon and Qualcomm's Gimbal

Retailers, sports teams and transit providers can use tech to get ads, directions, sale information and other info to in-venue customers

December 9, 2013 12:36 PM ET

Computerworld - Qualcomm Monday announced the availability of a far-reaching proximity technology similar to what's already been deployed by Apple and other retailers to reach out to customers at store locations.

Chip-maker Qualcomm said it's offering two low-cost models of Gimbal proximity beacons that let retailers, stadium operators and transit providers wirelessly communicate with customers.

Two small Gimbal transmitters work over Bluetooth Low Energy to send ads, offers and other information to customers as they arrive at a location.

Last week, Apple started using a similar proximity technology, dubbed iBeacon, in its 254 U.S. stores. The Apple technology can send to iOS users messages about products, events and information tailored to where they are in a store.

Users of iBeacon must have already downloaded an Apple Store app and have given Apple permission to send notices based on their location.

Apple demonstrated iBeacon at its Fifth Avenue store in New York City, which has about 20 iBeacon transmitters, some inside of iPhones and iPads.

Qualcomm's two Gimbal models are small transmitters encased in boxes that could be mistaken for Wi-Fi transmitters. Series 20, the largest model, is roughly less than 4-in. square and less than 1-in. thick. It's available in volume for as low as $10 each.

The smaller Series 10 model is less than half the size and is priced from $5 each.

At release, Gimbal supports iOS devices. Qualcomm said support for Android is also planned.

Battery life extends from up to a year for the smaller model and up to three years for the larger one.

The promise of proximity technology is being eyed by advertisers as well as companies looking to inform customers at store locations or in large venues like stadiums, museums, zoos and transit stops. The Bluetooth technology is accurate from 1 foot to about 25 feet and can work indoors, unlike most GPS systems.

A transit rider could use Gimbal to find directions to reach a connecting bus or train, while a stadium operator could use the technology to send arriving sports fans information about the day's event. The information could be personalized, according to a video and other data at the Qualcomm Gimbal website.

Major League Baseball announced earlier this year that it plans to use iBeacon next year to reach fans at its ballparks.

Other stores have already deployed in-store location technology such as Macy's and J.C Penney via an app called Shopkick.

The far-reaching technology could be paired easily with in-store point-of-sale purchases. Apple already has millions of customers who have agreed to store credit card information with Apple, and the fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S and 5C devices could be used as a security element for a quick purchase inside a store without the need to find a clerk or a checkout terminal.

Apple could put more than 250 million Apple iBeacons in U.S. stores by the end of 2014, according to TechCrunch, which noted that every iOS device since the iPhone 4S and iPad third generation is already capable of being either an iBeacon receiver or transmitter. That means about 190 million iOS devices are capable of becoming iBeacons.

Karen Webster, CEO of Market Platform Dynamics, noted in a recent study that Apple may use its mobile commerce capabilities to dominate that market.

Apple has already innovated with Passbook, with allows barcode enabled payments, she said, adding that iBeacon is more merchant friendly than NFC. She said that it would cost a typical retail store half as much to equip the space with iBeacons than to put NFC tags on products.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter@matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed Hamblen RSS. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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