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As far as tradeshows go, SXSW Interactive is akin to controlled chaos, a bit like a three-ring circus with companies and brands doing their best to grab the attention of thousands of techies from around the world.

Indeed, the conference organizers know that the experience SXSWi attendees have is as important as the discovery of the next great trend or hot social app.

After all, it’s Austin — the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World.” This is the place where art, performance and business all merge into one common objective: the Austin experience.

And for three week's in March, SXSW personifies that experience. The commingled extravaganza of music, film and interactive events started Friday and runs through March 22.

For anyone in marketing or advertising, the main event is the five-day interactive portion, which runs through tomorrow.

Beam Me Up

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One way the Interactive tradeshow organizers keep the SXSW circus from spinning out of control is through new technology.

The tradeshow's big splash this year involves its newly launched app, SXSW GO, which uses iBeacon technology to push updates to conference attendees. Beacons are close to the heart of modern marketers.

They're a key element of indoor location and place-based marketing, a fast-growing digital marketing segment that could be worth more than $10 billion annually in the US by 2018.

Yes, iBeacon technology was introduced at SXSW last year. But it was limited to registration tables and select speaker venues. This year the gloves came off with what has been called the world’s largest iBeacon deployment.

About 1,000 iBeacons using Bluetooth wireless technology are positioned around the Austin Convention Center to share timely updates with festivalgoers.

With that many iBeacons you might think SXSW would the equivalent of a digital Normandy invasion, with messages whizzing by hot and heavy announcing the latest updates on trending topics, speakers and festival-related offers.

What Messages?

A quick check around the tradeshow floor, however, revealed much a different story.

“One message sprung up on my phone on Saturday but I was in the middle of something else so I blew it off,” said Steve Taylor of Jackman, a brand and customer experience consulting company from Toronto. When I interviewed him Sunday, he recalled receiving only one message.

Another festival attendee, a job placement specialist with a large public university who preferred to remain anonymous, said she got one message. But she conceded she was largely out-of-touch because she turns off her Bluetooth. It drains her iPhone battery.

A reporter for The Verge I ran into at Houndstooth Coffee at 4th and Congress said she wasn’t even aware of the iBeacon rollout.

After a not-so-hidden eye-roll and a quick explanation of the concept, she raised up her HTC phone, implying that she was unable to receive iBeacon messages because they were based on the Apple ecosystem.

Pros and Cons

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Kyle McCarthy, creative director at Ogily & Mather in Chicago, said he received a few messages on the tradeshow floor. “The part I liked the most [about SXSW GO] was being in a session and getting to see the comments of session attendees on Twitter. But the process was a bit disconnected – seeing the comments inside the app then going to Twitter to add to the conversation.”

Pedro Aponte, who was staffing the Startups of Puerto Rico booth, was realistic. Aponte founded uDiscover, which developed an iBeacon-based content management system for parks, zoos and museums.

“IBeacon technology is still in its infancy,” he said. “You have to get buy-in from your customers to download the app and keep their Bluetooth enabled or you won’t fulfill your mission of enhancing the customer experience. More importantly, you have to program highly-contextual messages to make the most of the customer communication.”

So what's the future of iBeacon technology, given its spotty start at SXSW?

Aponte said it’s bright. “Soon you will see iBeacon technology everywhere, in shopping malls, hospitals, parks – you name it. But it has to balance the information needs of the customer with the desire of the business to sell more. In the end, it’s all about the content.”

Realistically, nobody doubts that iBeacon/BLE technology has a future. But before the technology can live up to its potential, it has to address many of the shortcomings witnessed at the largest iBeacon deployment on the planet.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic LicenseSecond image by TheNickster. Other two images by Dave Manzer.