Apple quietly introduced iBeacon this year as a feature in iOS 7. Basically this functionality uses the new Bluetooth technology called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to let devices communicate with one another while using very little energy. This means that tiny transmitters can be placed at specific locations such that when you come in range, say within 10 feet, your phone alerts you with some information. Apple, for example, earlier this month deployed iBeacon transmitters in 254 of their US Apple Stores. If you have this feature enabled, you'll receive information as you browse in an Apple Store. For example, if you pause by the iPhone display, the iBeacon will inform you of your upgrade status and encourage you to trade in your old phone for a new one.
Other applications, for example, would be museums, in which you'd receive information about exhibits as you browse. Major League Baseball will be testing iBeacon this upcoming season in some stadiums, features of which will include directing you to your seat and offering coupons for nearby concessions. Macy's is also testing location-specific discounts in some of its stores using iBeacon.
As I understand it, iBeacon is app-specific, meaning that it's a feature that a developer builds into an app, similar to Apple's Passbook. In the case of the Apple Stores, you get access to iBeacon information by using the Apple Store app. Some companies, such as Estimote, are manufacturing iBeacon transmitters, with prices around $30, but iOS devices themselves can be used as transmitters. The image accompanying this post shows a selection of Estimote Beacons.
Business Insider has a helpful article explaining what iBeacons are and why Apple is way out ahead with this new technology. And Wired has a great article titled "4 Reasons Why Apple’s iBeacon Is About to Disrupt Interaction Design." The article notes that location specific information is just one use, and gives an example of another great use for iBeacon: If you buy an Apple TV, you set it up just by tapping it with your iPhone, and iBeacon automatically does the rest. Other examples are in-store navigation and dynamic pricing. Maybe if you're recognized as a frequent customer, you'll get a special price.
One of the biggest trends being anticipated these days is the "Internet of things." Until now the Internet has basically been people accessing information on computers. But increasingly, our gadgets are talking to each other. Most tech experts see this as the future. And iBeacon will likely be a key element of this future.