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Inside Oracle

Signal Process

Oracle Developers tinker with beacons to find new enterprise uses for the Bluetooth Low Energy transmitters.

by Alison Weiss

September 2014

Everyone at Oracle has a job to do: a series of responsibilities and deadlines they have to manage every day. But given the scale of the work being done at Oracle, developers can find themselves swimming upstream against a continuous deluge of tasks. If developers are stuck treading water, it can be more than frustrating—it can be deadly in the fast-moving tech industry.

ibeacons-spotart

To break developers out of their daily grind and keep fresh ideas flowing through Oracle, the Application User Experience group has embraced “developer challenges,” inviting bright minds from around the organization to engage in a few days engaged in serious play (check out Profit’s coverage of a developer challenge in the Mexico Development center in 2013).

In July 2014, the group hosted the Beacons Developer Challenge, which focused on small, low-cost Bluetooth low energy (BLE)-based transmitters that communicate with compatible devices (such as smart phones) to provide micro-location-based information and services. Event organizers from the group—DJ Ursal, director, Product Management and Laurie Pattison senior director, User Experience—presented participants with a challenge: create an app that uses beacons to helps employees navigate the two million square feet of facilities at Oracle’s Redwood Shores, Calif. headquarters (and feel free to include services for the 26.1 million square foot global campus space). That means helping Oracle staff find the right building, office location, conference room, café, parking structure, and cubicle, and automatically check into the correct conference room.

“It was a tall order, working with large spatial data sets and a new technology,” says Pattison. “But we wanted to see what our teams could come up with under the pressure of a three-day deadline. We were impressed with the results.”

Beacons: Signs of Life

Beacons have potential to bring new location-based services to the enterprise. Instead of using satellite-based signals to determine a user’s location (as with GPS), an inexpensive Bluetooth transmitter emits a highly localized, unique and identifiable BLE signal that can be read by a compatible app or operating system on beacon-enabled devices. The signal can then be looked up over the internet to pinpoint the device’s physical location or trigger an action on the device, such as a push notification or a check-in on social media.

So when a smartphone comes into range of a beacon, an app on a smartphone detects the beacon signal and responds. Beacons can be used indoors (where traditional GPS technology has trouble working) and provide a much more granular level of detail for mobile apps to use.

Interest in beacons is definitely growing. Findings by ABI Research, suggest that the BLE beacon hardware market will increase over the next five years to an estimated 60 million units by 2019. Experts in the retail industry are pioneering the use of beacon technology to interact with consumers in stores to reveal if nearby items are on sale or to allow customers to pay at a point-of-sale without having to actually remove their wallets or credit cards. However, beacons have the potential to be useful in other areas, including manufacturing, smart homes, travel and hospitality.

Consumers are okay with technology benefitting a retailer, but they want to feel that the retailer is interested in what’s good for them and in helping them. That’s what the science we’re working on is trying to do.”

Joe Goldberg, chief research scientist, Applications User Experience at Oracle, believes the timing is right for beacon technology because the power to process and store large data sets (which beacons generate on an ongoing basis) is getting better and cheaper. With that upward trend in mind, Goldberg is working with a team in the Oracle Applications User Experience group to examine how beacons can be used to solve problems associated with business meetings in an increasingly geographically dispersed workforce.

“We’re looking at how we can use beacons to provide some intelligence about where individuals are situated in a space, how they’re moving and what they’re doing to make people who are remotely linking to the meeting feel more like they are actually in attendance,” he says. “It’s about developing broader intelligence and helping Oracle answer the questions, ‘What can Oracle do with beacon technology?’”

60 million

The number of Bluetooth low energy hardware units that will be sold annually by 2019 to take advantage of beacon technology. (Source: ABI Research)


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Rising to the Challenge

Indeed, the goal of the Oracle developer challenge was to focus on location-aware business scenarios. All participants were provided with the same sample data, mobile application frameworks, and plugins to create a mobile app to address Pattison and Ursal’s challenge. Every team was provided with a set of iBeacons from Estimote.

Taking place over the course of three days, the competition drew from a variety of Oracle development groups—for a variety of reasons. Hima Cherukuru, senior applications engineer, Oracle Fusion SEM, wanted to gain new skills and learn something new very quickly. Another member of her team, Vinod Sundar, senior applications engineer, Oracle Fusion Customer Relationship Management, saw the challenge as a way to boost morale and motivation by collaborating with others and taking a break from regular work activities.

The organizers shared this view of the event. Ursal says he wanted to present an opportunity for team members to learn from each other by sharing information, discussing technical options, debating the best solution, and applying their skills to the developer challenge projects. “At the end of the day, the event promoted an innovative social network that allowed one to connect with like-minded people, crossing organizational boundaries,” he says.

Clearly, all the teams embraced the spirit of innovation. One team created on an app (called iBacon) to locate fast food using beacon signals. The third-place winning team developed an app to change the way employees look for resources in the office.

Harish Gowda, senior applications engineer in the CRM applications group at Oracle, won the first place award with a simple yet innovative use case—something he says he’s learned from participation in previous challenges. Gowda says that for a competition of this length, focusing on delivering no more than three working features is a recipe for success. Gowda also recommends participants keep an eye on the clock—since part of winning is delivering a good presentation, developers should move up their deadlines to make sure there’s enough time to prepare. And always remember the element of surprise. “I don’t tell everything about my idea,” he says. “You have to have a surprise event, to make sure you get that applause.”

While the details of Gowda’s entry are still under wraps, his colleagues were so impressed by his mobile app that he is teaming up with Pattison and Ursal of the Oracle Application User Experience team to turn the winning project into a product.

“I knew I wanted to think of an idea that would make the Oracle campus better,” he says. “In my day-to-day job, I have a rule that if I’m frustrated about something, I have to focus on a solution, and this was good practice for the challenge.”

Future Opportunities

Beyond the challenge, Oracle experts continues to investigate the revenue potential of beacons, particularly in retail. John Yopp, senior manager Retail Global Business Unit at Oracle, runs a research lab focused on future use cases for shoppers. Yopp contends that one big appeal of beacons is that they are easy to integrate with and inexpensive. He and his team are exploring security issues and the possibility one day soon of wearable items such as watches being outfitted with beacons. One central issue in retail is how to balance using beacon technology to meet the needs of customers for a better brand experience but not to become too invasive.

“You don’t want consumers to feel used. Consumers are okay with technology benefitting a retailer, but they want to feel that the retailer is interested in what’s good for them and in helping them,” he says. “That’s what the science we’re working on is trying to do.”

And beacons will definitely be a topic of conversation at Oracle OpenWorld 2014 in a session that will highlight how beacon technology can deliver tailored content to customers and enable social applications, such as Oracle Social Network, to provide more relevant information to users, no matter where they are.

For Yopp, there is real benefit to developer challenges and highlighting emerging technologies at events like OpenWorld. “We at Oracle get a chance to hear people’s perspectives on beacon technology and all the other technologies they’re looking at,” he observes. “They’re the type of people who are curious and putting money into Kickstarter campaigns, have 15 gadgets at home and are going to Maker Shed. They’re our kind of people when it comes to innovation.”

Photography by Shutterstock