Android's 'Nearby' Feature Debuts, Helps Users Find What's Nearby

Nearby will suggest new apps when a user is in the vicinity of something interesting, from shopping to sports, airports and more.

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Helping mobile users find just the right apps at the very moment they need them is the aim of Nearby, a new Google Android feature that is being rolled out to users. Nearby, which is included in the latest Google Play Services update release and will be installed when a user's device receives the update, will work on the Android 4.4 KitKat mobile operating system and higher.

The new Nearby feature will notify users in a museum about an audio tour app they didn't know about or offer up a barcode scanning app when a user is in a store and needs to check on the price of an item, Akshay Kannan, the product manager for Google Nearby, wrote in a June 9 post on the Android Official Blog. Nearby is activated by low-energy Bluetooth electronic beacons that notify it of nearby places to flag to users.

"The Play Store offers over one million apps—many of which are created to be used in specific locations or situations," wrote Kannan. "The right app at the right moment lets you get more done. But, getting the right apps at the right time can be tough if you don't already know about them. So we're introducing a new Android feature called Nearby, which notifies you of things that can be helpful near you."

Using Nearby and the apps it provides, users will be able to print photos directly from their phone at a CVS Pharmacy, explore historical landmarks at the University of Notre Dame, download an audio tour when visiting The Broad museum in Los Angeles, skip the customs line at select airports with Mobile Passport or get the United Airlines app to receive free in-flight entertainment while waiting at the gate before a flight.

Nearby-enabled apps will also allow some Google devices, including Google Cast and Android Wear watches, to set them for Nearby services by tapping a notification when they are nearby, wrote Kannan.

The project is related to a Google Chrome experiment called the Physical Web project, which helps users find relevant Websites when they are searching in Chrome, he wrote. "In addition to displaying relevant apps, Nearby will surface these Websites directly from Android."

Developers can use the new services by deploying their own beacons that work with Nearby, according to a related post made by Kannan on the Google Developers Blog.

Mobile users can use Nearby services by turning on Bluetooth and Location on their devices, which will bring up a notification when a nearby app or Website is available, wrote Kannan.

"Once you've opted-in, tapping on a notification takes you straight into the intended experience," he wrote. "If you're not interested, just swipe it away to give us a clear signal."

The Nearby service extends the Nearby APIs that were launched by Google in 2015.

Google beacons, which are based on an open beacon format known as Eddystone, are Bluetooth-based low-energy beacons for location- and proximity-tracking purposes.

Beacons have sometimes not been welcomed by users. In October 2014, New York City officials ordered the removal of a controversial system of advertising beacons that were in the process of being installed in Manhattan phone booths after critics began lashing out at the system due to privacy concerns, according to an earlier eWEEK story. The system was being installed by an outdoor media company, Titan, which previously sold advertising space in some 5,000 telephone kiosks throughout the city. Critics bashed the project after reports began surfacing that small transmitter beacons were being installed to deliver or "push" ad messages to nearby smartphone users using Bluetooth signals. Some 500 of the small transmitters, which are also called beacons, had already been installed throughout Manhattan when the project was scuttled.