We strolled down a sensor-studded smart street

We’re barreling toward a future where the main street of every town is as connected as your smartphone. But will it be a fun shopping nirvana where you can find new things with ease, or advertising hell? Imagine if every business you walked by blanketed your phone in notifications that are mildly interesting at best, or worse, completely irrelevant.

It’s a legitimate concern, and one that BrandStreet, a UK startup, is addressing in an innovative way. However, after trying it out, worrying about ads may be silly, because it may not work at all.

Beacons make it all possible

At the heart of the smart main street will be a tiny piece of tech called a beacon. It’s designed to ping your smartphone when you walk past a shop, bus stop, or public attraction, or help guide you around large complicated locations such as airports (see: Microsoft’s city for the blind project).

The beacon is the weapon of choice on the smart street of the future.

Beacons require Bluetooth to activate, and Wi-Fi apparently helps. Stores pop them in the window, or close to the entrance because range is limited, ready to meet and greet potential customers as they pass by. If you’ve visited an Apple retail store recently, you may have seen them in action while using the Apple Store app.

In the hands of a keen retailer, the beacon is a fast, personal connection to the device most of us can’t help but stare at. It’s the weapon of choice on the smart street of the future.

The heart of BrandStreet’s big idea is a custom app, which functions like a social network, combined with apps like Yelp and Foursquare. In it, you follow shops and businesses that interest you, and as you wander down the street, relevant offers and promotions are pushed to your phone. Because you choose which stores to follow, the annoyance level is minimized, theoretically creating a harmonious union between shoppers and retailers.

What it’s like to walk down a smart street

BrandStreet’s app is easy to operate, is location aware, and will gather together a list of stores in your area that you can follow. There are various streams to monitor, with one providing real-time results taken from beacons you pass, and another for businesses to use like Facebook’s Wall.

What’s it like when you walk down the street? To ease you in, BrandStreet’s vibrate and audio alerts are turned off, so a beacon ping just appears on your phone’s home screen. During my walk, a local art gallery matched the art in the shop window with that posted on its BrandStreet app page and notification.

Passing Tantalize, a beauty and tanning shop, I received a notification telling me that I could get some eyelash extensions from them. Obviously this wasn’t targeted at me — my eyelashes are long and lustrous already, thanks — but demonstrated the effectiveness of the beacon and BrandStreet’s promotion ideas.

For a store like Tantalize, this is perfect. People often pass by the store without knowing it offers services aside from tanning. Until BrandStreet introduced the concept, beacons and push notifications like this were entirely unknown to everyone I spoke to, but places like Tantalize were excited.

Silence isn’t golden

Sadly, despite following all the local stores with beacons, ensuring my phone had location services on, and that Bluetooth was turned up to 11 — the rest of my walk remained silent. I strolled back and forth in front of stores I knew had beacons (I could see the things on the wall, in some cases), but they ignored my presence. Undeterred, I rebooted my phone, restarted the app, and patrolled main street a few more times, but without success.

Promises of amazing discounts, wonderful offers, and a warm feeling of inclusion are utterly irrelevant if the tech doesn’t work. Making it worse was that I’d seen it in action for an all too brief amount of time. Brandstreet was the app equivalent of someone saying they’d tell me the most amazing bit of gossip, then just sitting there, staring into space and refusing to say anything at all.

Big plans for the future

It’s very early days for BrandStreet’s connected street project, and hiccups are to be expected. BrandStreet’s Founder and CEO Kevin Robinson, who has worked on the project for several years, is aware there’s still work to be done, but has big plans for the future.

BrandStreet provides the participating stores with a free beacon, and access to a Web-based platform through which they can manage their app page and notifications. Weybridge town is the test, and if it’s successful, Robinson wants to spread out into neighboring towns and further afield. There are plans to add interactive pages, such as restaurants providing menus through the app, and to integrate Apple Pay.

Promises of amazing discounts and wonderful offers are utterly irrelevant if the tech doesn’t work.

The BrandStreet concept is intriguing, and blending a familiar social network-style app with location-based alerts makes it simple for everyone to use. By carefully managing alerts, offers, and the app itself, it shouldn’t become an irritation just waiting to be turned off or deleted. Unfortunately, none of this matters if your phone is quiet as a grave as you stroll through a street of beacons.

Beacon technology is still being refined, standards are still being worked out, and in their current form they’re clearly unreliable. If you’re worried about your local main street becoming hazardous to your sanity thanks to a bombardment of smartphone-based ads, don’t fret just yet; the tech’s struggling to cope with the basics.

Does that mean we shouldn’t look forward to a more smartphone friendly, connected shopping experience in our town? Well, no. If this works, it’s a huge time saver.

On my way back from my failed BrandStreet test, rather than mess around checking Yelp, I wanted to pull out my phone and get a handy offer — or even just a welcome note — from the closest coffee shop. I didn’t feel like looking it up. A connected main street should offer this. For now, BrandStreet is just a regular street.

Mobile

How iOS 13 will eventually make your iPhone the only ID you need

In Apple’s iOS 13, the stage is being set for it to become the main form of personal identification you carry, due to the company opening up its NFC feature beyond simply Apple Pay.
Mobile

Master your newly updated iPhone with the best iOS 13 tips and tricks

The iOS 13 public beta is here. But there's a lot of new and confusing features to dive into in iOS 13. Don't flounder around looking for them -- here's a list of useful iOS 13 tips and tricks to get you started.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2019

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Mobile

The stand-alone Palm is now available, but you don’t really need it

Palm, the reinvented company carrying the name of the brand we all know, has released a stand-alone version of its tiny phone. That means you don't need another phone to use it with, and you don't need to pay for another data plan.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Tesla Special Edition turns out to be a beautiful dream

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 may not be far away now, but there are still surprises in store. One that will not happen is a team-up with Tesla. A post on Weibo referenced what turns out to be an imaginative high-concept render by a YouTuber.
Cars

What is Apple CarPlay? Here's all you need to know about iOS in your dashboard

CarPlay is one of two major infotainment systems currently vying for your car's dash. Here's everything you need to know about the system, including its feature set and host of third-party apps.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Illuminated keyboards and a retro gaming console

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Mobile

Crowdsourced interactive mapping app Waze gives you the lowdown on traffic

Waze is a free, ad-supported interactive navigation app with benefits. It calculates routes using social media crowdsourcing to alert you to current traffic conditions. Wazers act as the road's eyes and ears to alert other travelers.
Mobile

FedEx mistakenly rejects shipment of a Huawei phone to the U.S.

There has been confusion about what exactly the placement of Huawei on the U.S. Entity List means for private customers. Recently a tech writer who tried to ship a Huawei phone to the U.S. was surprised when the phone was returned to him.
Mobile

From true crime to comedy, here's our list of the best podcasts around

When you aren’t in the music mood, podcasts can be your ear candy. Whether you love to stay up-to-date on the latest news or want to know what’s happening in sports, you’ll find something on our must-listen-to podcast roundup.
Movies & TV

Netflix hack day project adds phone vibrations to every on-screen explosion

One of the highlights of the most recent Netflix hack day is Project Rumble Pak, which adds vibrations to the streaming service's smartphone app. The project seeks to improve the viewing experience by synchronizing haptics to content.
Mobile

A library at your fingertips: The best free Kindle books

Reading shouldn't be an expensive hobby. Here, we've put together a list of some of the better free offerings currently available for Kindle devices, so you don't have to sort through thousands of titles on Amazon and Google Play.
Deals

Amazon Prime Day 2019: Start date, predictions, and the best deals so far

Amazon Prime Day 2019 isn't here yet, but it's never too early to start preparing. We've been taking a look at the best discounts from previous Prime Days to give you our predictions of what to expect this year.
Mobile

The stand-alone Palm is available for purchase and still costs $350

A reboot of the classic Palm is finally here and it's tiny. It syncs to your phone and acts as a secondary device -- with a feature to help you disconnect from technology. The Palm will be available exclusively through Verizon for $350.