South by Southwest 2015: All About Beacons, Beacons, Beacons

Location Targeting Gadgets Deployed for Souped Up Networking

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Beacons at SXSW
Beacons at SXSW

Tech types aren't known for being socially adroit. At this year's South by Southwest festival, they'll have a new chance to connect with less social risk -- and another excuse to stare into their phones.

Eventbase, a company specializing in large-scale meetups, installed upwards of 1,000 bluetooth-enabled beacons throughout the Austin innovation summit -- calling it the biggest installation of the mobile technology to date. Scott Wilcox, chief technology officer with South by Southwest, said the beacons have been depoloyed across some 265 venues in the city. If a visitor downloads the official conference app, they can find a list of other participating attendees in the vicinity.

When I arrived at the main convention center, scrolling through the list turned up execs from Omnicom, Digitas, Reebok, Apple, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Attendees can send each other messages and favorite profiles, which prioritzes those people, displaying them first on the app, as attendees move around the convention center.

Eventbase South by Southwest mobile app
Eventbase South by Southwest mobile app

"It's a completely new take on networking," said Jeff Sinclair, co-founder of Eventbase. "There are so many people that want to connect. We're just trying to make those connections better." The company calls its geo-targeting solution "hyper-local networking."

The installation is also a bid to acclimatize more people to beacons. The small devices, which connect smartphones through bluetooth, are rolling out nationwide, as retailers and marketers hope to harness location targeting for in-store sales. Facebook is currently testing beacons, working with Qualcomm to spread the gadgets across the country and tie them back to their users, and their ads.

Still, the gadgets carry a stigma. For one, it requires consumers to keep bluetooth on, which, in its earlier iterations, sucked battery life.

"People think bluetooth, they think their battery is going to be drained," said Ben West, the other Eventbase co-founder. Across the convention, Eventbase is putting out material encouraging attendees to switch on the function.

With beacons, people also think privacy invasion and spam, Mr. West added. Eventbase says it is not sharing any personal data. The app's creators are working to find the right amount of pushed user notifications and are also trying to keep the app relativey promotion free. Showtime, the conference's co-sponsor, is also a sponsor of the app where it is running display ads. Eventbase is also working with USA Networks on experiential marketing during the festival.

"With beacon technology, the price has just come down to a point that it's cost effective to do this," explained Mr. Sinclair. Gimbal, a beacon manufacturer recently spun off from Qualcomm, supplied the devices, which range from $3 to $50. They range in size too, with the smallest being the size of a poker chip. In installing the beacons, Eventbase tried to be discrete. Some small beacons dangled virtually unnoticed on a bannister above the registration line.

Mega-events like South by Southwest, with its dozens of overlapping panels and speakers, can quickly become overwhelming. With the conference app, Eventbase aims to offer a "deeper integration between you and the content," Mr. West said.

And it wants to make the primary reason people flock to conferences like this -- meeting others -- easier. Mr. West, a self-described introvert, looked at the app on his phone. "This helps me get over that," he said.

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