The Tale of the Biggest-Ever Tradeshow BlueCast

bluecastingLike all good stories, this one has ups and downs, love and loss, drama and suspense… 

(Heavy on the suspense).

It began shortly, shortly ago, in a land not, not so far away (about 10 hours on Virgin Atlantic from London to Orlando; and I hear you even get little “plane socks”).  Anyway, there’s a company across the pond called Filter, and they’ve pioneered a relatively new technology called BlueCasting—which uses the Bluetooth in your mobile device to send out content.

What makes the idea so clever is that instead of you noticing the ad, the ad notices you.  Although it does get a little more complicated once you take it off paper…

Here’s how it works:  Behind your out-of-home advertisement lives several small BlueCasting servers—basically store-bought hubs with a bunch of USB antennas plugged in—which are connected to a computer with special BlueCasting software on it.  The software tells the servers to look for all Bluetooth devices within a 100-foot radius (operative word here being all, to do a bit of foreshadowing…), and your cellphone gets pinged when the server finds you.  If you choose to play along, then all you have to do is accept the content when the phone prompts you.  Voilà, that’s it! 

As an advertiser, this allows you to immediately distribute content at the point-of-sale—a.k.a. “proximity-based marketing”—which could potentially disrupt even the most sophisticated of direct-marketing strategies; in the good way, of course.  So, depending on your plan, this means you could syndicate a podcast, wallpaper, video clip, whatever—offline!  (Within a 300K file size limit, that is).

The Lab introduced BlueCasting technology to our Microsoft client earlier this year, and it sounded like an ideal fit for the annual Tech·Ed tradeshow, which you can read all about here.  Basically, it’s 10,000 techies in a convention hall—the vast majority of whom have Bluetooth-enabled devices…and, um, actually know how to use them.  The main concern, of course, was that by making your Bluetooth “discoverable” (which is how the BlueCasting server finds you), you might be opening yourself up to a security risk.  And you know how IT guys are about security.

But that actually wasn’t the case at all.  On the opening day of the show, you could find upwards of 60 people at a time crowding around the ads (in this case, 8-foot glossy prints on a stand) trying to get their content!  That was due, in no small part, to a killer content plan put together by Microsoft’s Dean Andrews—including a rotating schedule of wallpaper, coupons, podcasts, videos, e-books, and so on.  Just check out his blog post, which has some great pictures and a summary of the wins and losses.

Which is where the story turns:  The big opportunity here—thousands of tech-savvy folks with Bluetooth devices in one sprawling room—paradoxically became the big problem.  You see, with so many mobile phones inside the BlueCasting servers’ 100-foot radius (upwards of a couple hundred or more at a time), the queue became unmanageably big.  This “noise” essentially overwhelmed the system, resulting in wait times of more than 10 minutes in some cases.  If the content even came at all.

What’s more, there are a number of devices that never even stood a chance—the most conspicuous of which being BlackBerrys.  Turns out that RIM Systems, the manufacturer, has limited the Bluetooth functionality in their handsets only to pairing with a headset or car.  I assume this is for security reasons, although I can’t confirm that.  And you would think that it’d be a strategic boon to be able to “beam” info from BlackBerry to BlackBerry, which was Palm’s best feature, hands-down.

Regardless, that’s what we were up against with Tech·Ed.  On Friday (which is when the conference ends, unfortunately), Filter is going to swap out antennas that only reach up to 10 feet, to see if that solves the ambient noise problem.  But even at that, to ask a consumer to wait any more than a minute or so for BlueCasted content is probably asking too much.  Especially in a non-tradeshow environment.

So in the final analysis—which is only “final” for now, obviously—BlueCasting probably isn’t quite ready for primetime; at least not in a conference setup.  That said, you’ve actually got to get it out there to determine what works and what doesn’t, so in that sense there’s a lot of success here.  Call it “BlueCasting 1.0,” if you like.  And it’s very possible, of course, that everything would hum along in a single-outpost, out-of home BlueCast arrangement. 

But we’re hoping that Filter can bang away at the technology to get it rocking for next year’s Tech·Ed conference.  In fact, it’s more than a hope.  It’s a requirement.