Nearables: Why a global lost-and-found network is finally viable

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Last week, Estimote released a new product: Estimote Stickers. This is a significant turning point for beacons. Until now, all the beacon hardware I've seen has been too large and bulky to affix to anything we use or take with us on a regular basis; they have been designed to work well as stationary fixtures, where you go to the beacons. Stickers, a class of beacons that Estimote has dubbed 'nearables,' are about to change all that. They're small, thin, portable, and sticky. And Estimote and their competitors are only going to keep making these things smaller and thinner. Finally, it's practical to expect that the beacons can come to you.

I believe ideas are cheap, and I've never been too protective of them, so I'm throwing this one out there: an app that facilitates a global network of finders for lost items. As I've mentioned before, beacons answer a unique question that is well suited for a lost and found application: not where in the world am I?, but how close am I to this thing? GPS is the answer to the where in the world am I? question, and by pairing beacons and GPS to answer both questions, I can imagine an incredibly useful utility application/service to locate lost items. Here's how I picture it working:

The Beacons

The first step, and haziest step for the average consumer, would be to acquire some beacons. Estimote currently sells the stickers marketed as 'Developer Preview' kits, so the idea is this is how you tinker with the technology, but they aren't a branded or cohesive solution. There would be a 1:1 relationship to beacons and items that you want to track. Ideally, if the beacons could be a branded or custom design, they would be discreet (i.e. wouldn't say "LOST AND FOUND NETWORK"), so a thief wouldn't rush to remove and discard the beacon.

The App

Here's a rough feature set and flow for the app:

  • Add items to the app and associate each with a beacon. The app associates each user with a major value, and each one of their items with a minor value. Everyone shares the same UUID value that will be used to constantly look for beacons*.
  • As items are added, they all have a property for lost that defaults to false.
  • Every user of the app must allow the app to search for beacons in the background.
  • When an item is lost or stolen, there's a way to mark that item in the app, setting lost to true.
  • Whenever a beacon is in range, ping the server to see if the item is marked as lost. If it isn't lost, do nothing.
  • When a ranged beacon marked as lost is within range, check to see if it also happens to belong to the current user. If so, trigger a push notification to let them know their lost item is nearby.
  • If a lost item doesn't belong to them, request permission to send their current GPS location to the rightful owner of the item. If it the lost item doesn't belong to them, they do not get any details about what it is. If GPS location is authorized, send a push notification to the rightful owner with the location and timestamp.
  • Give some kind of reward or thank you to the user who helped inform the rightful owner.

Possible monetization opportunities:

  • All items are free to store and record, but it costs some amount of money to mark an item as lost and activate the global network of searchers for your item. Display the number of active installations that have approved the Bluetooth access request and are 'active' finders as an additional push to incentivize the sale. For example, "10,253 people will help find your lost item."
  • Limit the number of items in the app to a certain number, with a one-time upgrade to store or tag an unlimited number of items.

The Server and Database

The backend setup will need a few things to keep a record of all items and their beacon addresses.

  • It will store all users' items and basic metadata about each: name, an identifier, and beacon (major/minor) information.
  • It will accept requests from apps with information about ranged beacons, and return whether that item is marked as lost or not.
  • Ability to trigger push notifications to specific users with a payload that includes GPS location of the item. There should be a stored history of all found notifications.

Added Bonus: Wireframes!

This is something I've started tinkering with, so I sketched out some wireframes in Balsamiq. Here's v1 of the wireframes (click for full-size image):

This is a fun project to tinker and play with. Maybe I'll end up building the whole thing, maybe not. But if this interests you and you want to take a stab at it, go for it!

* Confused about UUID, Major, and Minor values? See my explanation of iBeacon basics in this post.