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The Little Black Box That Could Get You Free Popcorn at Your Next Basketball Game

·Technology Editor

A beacon at the Oracle Arena. (Kevin Cote/Golden State Warriors)

OAKLAND, California — If you know what you’re looking for, making your way around the Golden State Warriors’ home arena is a little like playing a high-tech game of Where’s Waldo.

I’m navigating the concourses with Kevin Cote, the senior director for digital for the Warriors, and we are on a hunt for beacons, these little Bluetooth gadgets that come in all shapes and sizes that can send information to your phone if you come within a certain distance.

Once you know these beacons are there, you can’t stop looking for them. They’re in the rafters, affixed to walls and pipes, plugged into the backs of high-def televisions. It turns walking from your seats to the bathroom into a kind of very geeky treasure hunt.

If you’ve downloaded the Warriors app, these beacons can send phone notifications to you based on your physical location. Each notification is like a little surprise as you maneuver throughout the stadium; it’s not obvious where the beacons are, but once you receive a message from one, your eyes go wild, searching high and low for the transmitter.

iPhone alert from the Golden State Warriors
iPhone alert from the Golden State Warriors

Cote and his team placed all the beacons, so he knows the layout. He shows me one hanging just above the turnstiles; it beams a welcome message to fans’ phones as they enter. There’s another one, easier to spot, behind the Warriors’ social media desk, just to the right of the entrance, which encourages attendees to follow the various Golden State social networks. And here’s one more, at the tip-top of the escalators, enticing those in the nosebleeds with offers for a paid seat upgrade.

Fans entering Oracle Arena
Fans entering Oracle Arena

A beacon near the entrance to Oracle Arena. (Jason Gilbert/Yahoo Tech)

Oh, and then there’s my favorite: Each night, a different concession stand is blessed as the Magical Concession Stand. Cote or someone on his staff places a beacon behind the register. When you pass the beacon, it lets you know that the stand is offering a secret deal. Buy a slice of pizza and get free popcorn. Buy a popcorn and get free pizza. Eat an entire pizza and be showered in popcorn kernels by Warriors power forward Draymond Green after the game.

I made that last one up. But the point is: Free food, if you’re in the know, and if you can find the beacon — or, more accurately, if the beacon can find you.

What’s a freakin’ beacon?
Today’s beacons, in the most general terms, are Bluetooth-loaded gizmos that can interact with electronic devices when they sense them nearby — sending relevant notifications to smartphones, for example. And Oracle Arena serves as a useful preview for the way retailers — not just sports teams, but anyone with a physical store that sells stuff — might deploy this emerging technology in the near future: welcome messages, special offers, discounts, and geographically specific information, all on your phone, all when and where the retailer thinks you might need it.

MORE: What Are Bluetooth Beacons, and Why Are They Following You?

It’s something you might want to get comfortable with. A recent report from Business Insider’s research wing predicts that almost a third of all retail locations in the United States will feature beacons by the end of 2015.

That might be a little beacon-optimistic. But still, these inexpensive, powerful devices could become a boon for both sellers and shoppers in physical marketplaces.

Bluetooth beacon in Golden State Warriors arena
Bluetooth beacon in Golden State Warriors arena

A beacon behind the social media desk at the Warriors stadium. (Jason Gilbert/Yahoo Tech)

Retailers love them because, well, $$$. They can gently nudge shoppers to make a purchase, based on where they’re browsing. And shoppers may find them helpful in nabbing surprise deals or discounts on products they would have purchased anyway.

So far, the Warriors have found that their offers at the team store have been more successful than anything they’ve done with concessions. But they’re still in the learning phase. As their data piles up, they could have the most efficient beacon game in the NBA: By using strategically placed beacons, the Warriors app could learn the food you like, the spice of your buffalo wings, the size of your jersey, the players you dig, and more, to tailor each home game you attend into a personalized experience (where you also, oh, by the way, spend some extra cash).

The beacon surveillance state?
It’s important to note that these beacons aren’t nearly as malicious or spy-crafty as you might assume. If you walk into Oracle Arena with your iPhone, for example, you’re not just going to be bombarded with advertisements for Steph Curry jerseys.

That’s partly because the Warriors’ digital team is careful about the volume and quality of the beacon notifications it sends; it’s also due in part to the specs of the beacons themselves.

To receive any offers from the Warriors in the first place, you must download the Warriors app from the iTunes Store and then opt in to receiving location-based notifications from the beacons. If the popcorn offers become too frequent, you can turn off the service in your Settings, and you will no longer be offered BOGO [???] popcorn.

Free popcorn announcement on an iPhone from the Golden State Warriors app
Free popcorn announcement on an iPhone from the Golden State Warriors app

From the Warriors PR department, an example of how the free popcorn beacon works — from smartphone notification to redemption.

Indeed, just like you might unsubscribe from an email newsletter that comes too frequently or features low-quality information, so too could you delete the app of a beacon-based seller who wasn’t offering you anything worthwhile.

Also, despite some recent misunderstandings, the Warriors digital team was quick to reassure me that the beacon-to-phone transaction isn’t as invasive as it might sound. Mostly, the beacon is there to ping your phone when you walk near it, because you’ve given it explicit permission to do so. (My colleague Dan Tynan has more information here about the ways that beacons do, and don’t, collect information.)

The Warriors hope that a part of their app in the future will be traffic information for your commute home, with updated directions based on how and when you exit the arena. An Apple rep was quick to point out that Golden State would be able to accomplish this only if you actually provided the app with a home address.

If you don’t want to jump into the beacon game, you won’t have to; all of this can be disabled in your phone’s settings.

Just know that you are potentially missing out on pizza. Sweet, sweet pizza.

Our beacon future
One of my favorite ideas for beacons — and one that the Warriors were quick to decide wasn’t feasible — involved a push notification that asked fans to stand up and scream, “I love the NBA!” in return for a free Warriors trinket. I am completely in favor of transforming a stadium into the climactic scene from Spartacus as those without the Warriors app on their phones look on completely confused. Reward the early adopters; pressure those around them, the ones not screaming their loyalty.

Cote, the digital guy for the Warriors, tells me that they’re still working on the best uses and strategies for basketball arena beacons, and deployments of technology in the arena in general. Other stadiums use beacons to direct fans to their seats; that seems like a natural progression for the Beacon-ified Oracle Arena (and Golden State’s new stadium, currently targeted for a 2018 opening). As time goes on, and more data is collected, the Warriors and every other team experimenting with beacons will have their deal offers down to a science.

However the Great Beacon Deployment of 2015 shakes out, it seems likely that retailers are going to try to go after the leather object in your back pocket through the electronic one in your front. That much is inevitable. At least maybe you’ll get some free pizza out of it.

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