Why SXSW Is Using iBeacons for Hyper-Local Networking

Organizers say a massive installation of Bluetooth low-energy beacons combined with tagged attendee profiles will help people make meaningful connections.

After checking in at a location, users will see a list of who else is in the room, with their existing connections and favorites at the top of the list.
After checking in at a location, users will see a list of who else is in the room, with their existing connections and favorites at the top of the list.
Photo: Courtesy of South by Southwest

When South by Southwest opens tomorrow in Austin, Texas, more than 1,000 iBeacons—located in every one of the more than 250 official venues—will begin tracking and communicating with attendees through the event’s official mobile app, SXSW Go. Organizers say that will make it the largest deployment of iBeacons at an event and will facilitate better networking and engagement for the more than 30,000 attendees.

“Our attendees are hyper-connected and early adopters. At South by Southwest they want to not only have constant connectivity with their digital devices, but they want to connect with each other,” says Scott Wilcox, director of technology for the music, film, and interactive festivals and conferences. "We think this will improve the attendee experience by creating the context and intelligence … that facilitates smart connections face-to-face."

The iBeacons will power the new “Around Me” feature in the app, created by Eventbase. As users enter a session or networking area within range of a beacon, the app will prompt them to check in to see who else is nearby. Users will be able to look at other guests’ profiles and send messages directly through the app. “It’s as though you’ll know everybody in the room, and you can reach out and connect with the people you most want to connect with as opposed to having it be completely random who you walk up to,” says Eventbase co-founder Jeff Sinclair. Guests can also join a live chat with other people in the same room. Also new this year, the app has a feature called attendee matching, which analyzes tags in a user’s profile to identify fellow attendees with similar interests. Guests can “favorite” those people they most want to meet and then as they check in to locations, they will be able to see if those people are nearby.

“South by Southwest has always been about discovery—new bands, new films, new technology, and discovering new business connections. In an age where so much of business is conducted over email, phone, Skype, or social media, there is nothing quite like meeting in person,” Wilcox says.

The "Around Me” feature will also alerts guests to what is coming up on the schedule in their location, like bands or speakers. Eventbase, which has provided the official SXSW app since 2011, first used iBeacons last year on a smaller scale—about 40 of them—for things such as registration, session check-in, and polling. The company is working with Gimbal, RightRound, and Urban Airship to pioneer the technology at scale.

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