The world of Minority Report is about to be unlocked, and the key is inside your phone

Remember that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character walks into a Gap and an AI voice asks him if he’s still enjoying the trousers he bought last week? That vision was dreamt up by MIT consultants for the film many years ago, and as of today it would be entirely possible to reproduce, given we all now walk around with smartphones which could be alerted in such a manner. There’s just a few snags. GPS, Bluetooth, NFC and Beacons are all technologies which have singularly failed to live up to the hype around hyper-location targeting. My inbox is daily filled with startups doing ‘in-store’ location targeting, with various flavours of Wifi, Bluetooth, you name it. None of them have interested me in the slightest. Until, that is, I met NewAer at the most recent SXSW.

In a demo area with, crucially, a bar, I slipped a small plastic disc into my pocket (a ‘physical cookie’ if you will) which — once loaded — magically contained my Facebook profile. As I walked around the room, I would be, without asking, presented with my favourite drink (G&T) and put into a queue for a side-demo of a VR experience just by hanging close by, instead of waiting in line. I could approach screens which would tell me if there were any other people from London in the room. I didn’t retrieve or open my phone once the whole time, and every experience was tailored to me. If I walked away from the area my data and profile disappeared from the screens.

But that wasn’t the greatest revelation. What was truly interesting to me was that I didn’t even need this little Beacon sitting in my pocket. I could have done the same thing with an app on my phone, which would allow me to set all my communication and privacy preferences, and which wouldn’t suck precious battery power away. That, to me, is the game changer. It also wouldn’t need me to download multiple apps for multiple locations.

Walking me through the experience was founder Dave Mathews. This entrepreneur should know about location-based apps and linked the physical world with online. He has in fact been championing creating a ‘physical cookie’ for some time. He pioneered the CueCat barcode reader which could link printed magazine articles to the Web back in 2000. It’s been a long journey, but it looks like he may now have cracked what could be a huge market going forward. He even wrote a story in 2012 as to why location-based apps have failed in the past.

For how else will the Walmarts and small retailers of this world compete against Amazon without a way to tailor their real-world retail environments to customer preferences? The applications don’t stop there, but let’s first explore how all this works.

NewAer has an app called Kiosk. Under the hood, this a WebKit-based browser with integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) detection built in. That means it can determine the range of nearby mobile devices and automatically change what is displayed on the screen. Mobile devices can be Android, iOS, or even fitness Wearables and iBeacons.

NewAer’s Kiosk app (less than 8MB big) then lets an iPad or maybe even an Apple TV act as a digital signage host and turns the iPhone into a client.

In reality, NewAer is far more likely to appear inside, say, an airline’s app to display your personal flight time on a nearby display in the lounge, of instance.

So far they’ve worked with multiple airlines on pilot projects to do just this such as American Airlines and Lufthansa.

What NewAer is tapping into an old idea left by the wayside by phone makers which used to be pretty interesting. It meant you could use your phone like a little server, broadcasting information. In the distant past Nokia had an app called Sensor which could broadcast a little web page about yourself to those nearby. It was almost like a hyper-location-based Tinder which could work inside in underground bar, far from 3G.

Today we have NFC for similar applications, but this technology is locked down by Apple for their payment system. NewAer can now open up this up by allowing Bluetooth to work like NFC.

At the demo, Mathews had the Kiosk app set up to receive data under one foot of distance for assigning guest’s Facebook profiles to the little circular iBeacon. Literally a small plastic circle. I could assign my Facebook ID to this bit of plastic and walk around the room trying out various applications. The best part, of course, was having my ID signed to my favourite drink at the bar. NFC can’t do this but Bluetooth can.

Where it gets really interesting is when you make NewAer Kiosk work on a smartphone to turn it into an iBeacon. That means you could either ask your users to download an application or have the NewAer SDK embedded inside an existing application. Developers can download the SDK for free at ProximityPlatform online or develop their own web interactions after downloading Kiosk in the iTunes store. NewAer acts as an iBeacon that can wake up a mobile phone, even when the app is closed by the user. Kiosk runs on an iPad, the 4th Gen Apple TV and Raspberry Pi 3 to drive digital signage inside of spaces. Its investors include Intel Capital and Telekom Ventures.

The disruption NewAer presages could be transformational. Right now Apple has iBeacon and Google has Eddystone. Dozens of companies make beacons which are $15-33 devices built on that ecosystem. Both of these competitors require those beacons to be placed in stores and both wake up the user phone – effectively spamming them. The whole area has more or less failed.

Turning all this into a simple, free SDK (not requiring $15-33!) inside an app which does not spam the user and allows them to tailor the experience would utterly disrupt how this technology could be applied and literally set it free from physical beacons.

Imagine seeing monitors and screens that are already on the walls of airports and malls come to life for you with relevant information (gate and time, or special offers based on your personal preferences) or an experience like Amazon gives you, but in the real, physical world, just like in Minority Report. But this time it doesn’t use cameras or biometrics, or reading your iris and you can opt out of any experience before, during or after within the applications which contain NewAer’s SDK.

Most observers in tech would agree that iBeacon is dead. Nobody wanted to download an application for every retail store, and the beacons themselves either fell off the walls or the batteries died. They didn’t protect privacy, spammed users and even the Apple store didn’t have a positive interaction with them.

As NewAer hints, the future of mobile will be an “agent” doing things for you once you set a goal. Like “find me a car2go” or “send an Uber self driving car to me”. This peer-to-peer technology will make those vehicles personalized to us when they approach us. Or screens we approach. The point is that in the future people won’t need to look down at their phone.

Instead they can let those things around us “greet us” with a “digital wink” or a message.

Here comes Minority Report…