Four years ago, I wrote an article for Moo.com about using QR Codes on business cards. At the time, it was the easiest way to get VCARD information from a physical card and onto a phone.
I notice that Moo are now selling NFC enabled business cards. As regular readers know, I'm not a great fan of NFC - mostly because it's so expensive. The NFC cards are £1.20 each - the regular cards cost just 26p each!
What if we change the idea of what a business card is? Why do I need to hand over a physical bit of dead tree in order to exchange contact information? That's dumb.
Last week I was at the Over The Air hackference. While there, I was lucky enough to grab a few "Physical Web" beacons from Ilario Gressi of Google.
Yes. Yes there is.
What Is An iBeacon?
There are a lot of misconceptions around iBeacons. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a version of Bluetooth which is specifically designed to be efficient at broadcasting small amounts of data.
An iBeacon simply transmits an ID number via BLE. That's it. When your phone hears the broadcast, it looks up the ID and does something with it. The typical use case is that it alerts your Coffee Shop's app as to which branch you are in.
How It Works
I carry around a Physical Web beacon on my keyring. I've programmed it with the URl of my .tel website. It spends all day broadcasting that message via BLE.
Or, you can open up the app and see a list of nearby beacons.
One click (either in notification or app) and it takes you directly to a website with my digital business card.
The Physical Web specification is still evolving - and this BLE Business Card idea isn't without problems.
- Beacons are expensive. Around £20 each - or US$50 for 3. More expensive than NFC, but you keep the beacon rather than hand them out.
- URl length is limited to 144 bits. That's really short. I've suggested using a 7-bit alphabet, but it seems that the preferred solution is to use a URl shortener.
- Web addresses only. You can't directly embed an email address, phone number, or BitCoin link - just web.
- Limited hardware support. Just like NFC - you need a phone with the right chips in it. And you need an app. (*mutters darkly about how QR codes only need a camera lens. And an app...*)
- Battery life. BLE beacons should last 2 - 5 years on a single coin cell. NFC has no battery - it is powered by the phone - so should last forever. Similarly, QR Codes will last ask long as their ink sticks to paper.
- Size. A Physical Web beacon isn't small. Not as big a business card holder, true, but not quite small enough for a key-ring.
- Business cards, for all their faults, provide a physical memento of an interaction. A ritualised exchange takes place which, culturally, may carry more semantic weight than merely scanning the æther for nearby signals.
- Finally, I'm pretty cool being the only person in the room with a BLE Business Card - but what's it like when everyone has one? At the conference we set up loads of Physical Web beacons at once - and the app quickly became full of every beacon in a 75m radius:
Theoretically, the app will sort by whichever signal is the strongest - which should mean that if I'm standing next to you, your app will pick my card first. But no guarantees.
So, not perfect - but certainly a neat way to broadcast your identity to nearby people. With BLE making its way into more and more devices, it's certainly possible that it will overtake NFC as the primary way to discover and exchange data.
I encourage you to contribute to the Physical Web spec and apps, as well as to EddyStone which is part of the underlying technology. You can buy Physical Web beacons or, if you're feeling adventurous, build your own BLE beacons.