March 4, 2015

Making it to the gate on time, guided by beacons

Hauling ass in front of dozy-eyed tourists strolling the concourse is not a good look. Similarly, pushing people out of the way while screaming “MY GATE! MY GATE!” may trigger phone calls to the nearest asylum.

But this is how it goes sometimes on tight layovers, particularly when there’s ground to cover. If you land at San Francisco International Airport and have to get from Gate 90 — at the very end of Terminal 3 — all the way to Gate 26 in Terminal 2, you’re going to need time. A lot of time.

How much exactly? That’s usually impossible to say. But SFO has gate-scramblers covered, dotting public areas with new beacon technology.

Throughout the airport, tiny beacons emit a low frequency — known as Bluetooth LE — that can track your movement and let you know via your mobile device exactly how long it will take you to get from Point A to Point B.

The technology is helping travelers get to their destination quicker, and even answer some of life’s most pressing questions, such as, “Do I have time to get a latte?” Perhaps, you break out the James Bond theme song as you stride to the gate with minutes to spare, holding a magazine and a pastry — you dashing ne’er-do-well, you. All because you knew exactly how long you had.

It would be incredible to see these beacons used for cars. Imagine a parking garage that can reserve a spot for you — and direct you to it — as soon as you come off the street. Tech company Automatic, which makes a kind of plug-in wearable for vehicles, is already exploring this idea. The company recently added Bluetooth LE to its device, opening the possibility of turning vehicles into moving beacons that automatically pay for gas, tolls and car washes.

One day, beacons will be commonplace at museums, shopping malls and stadiums; only now in 2015 are we getting acquainted with them.