Beacons, iBeacons, and BLE: New Old Technology

What are they?
A beacon is a small, low-cost wireless device that broadcasts radio signals to nearby smartphones and tablets. Beacons interact with apps by using these radio signals to trigger a location-based action. They use battery-friendly, low-energy Bluetooth connections (BLE) to transmit these signals, and can be placed inconspicuously within a store or attached to anything from a shopping cart to a name tag. Beacons are over 50% more energy efficient than traditional Bluetooth devices and have almost no noticeable effect on smartphone battery life.

How do they work?
Beacons work by constantly emitting radio signals which are received and acted upon by applications in a Bluetooth-enabled device. Native apps constantly scan for these signals, which prompt an action within the app once discovered. For example, if a customer has downloaded a particular store’s app, a beacon placed at the entrance of a store could prompt a push notification welcoming the customer to the store and alerting them of a sale or special offer. At large events or department stores, beacons can be used to triangulate and pinpoint the location of the user, there for providing useful and accurate indoor mapping. Beacons can also be used to drive traffic to specific booths or locations at large events by prompting push notifications and using location triangulation to guide the user. Although beacons are incredibly useful, the real hero is the software they interact with. The usefulness of a beacon is in its ability to let an app “see” its surroundings. By sensing for the small beacon signal, apps can calculate proximity to that beacon. Based on proximity, the app can be programmed to do a variety of things. Without powerful native apps, beacons would be useless.

Beacons vs. iBeacons
The main difference between beacons and iBeacons is that iBeacons use Apple’s slightly different specifications for transmitting. iBeacon was integrated into iOS7 and allows an iOS7 iPhone or iPad to act as both a transmitter and receiver. Additionally, Apple has developed a standardized format for BLE advertising with iBeacon. The actual BLE technology in iBeacons is essentially the same as BLE Beacons, but iBeacon is integrated into iOS and is the Apple-branded name for their specific beacon technology.

Uses for Beacons
Although the retail industry was the first to experiment with beacons on a large scale, beacons can be used everywhere from theme parks to boardrooms. They have been implemented at Apple stores across the world and were used with great success recently at Bonnaroo music festival. Events and trade shows would be an ideal application for beacons, which would help vendors drive traffic to booths and providing analytics to promoters. Aside from being beneficial for consumers by providing them with contextual, useful information, beacons can help apps provide detailed and helpful analytics regarding user patterns. The uses of beacons are limited only by creativity.

Parts Needed

A Beacon. Multiple beacons are necessary for trilateration. There are already a variety of beacon manufacturers who sell beacons to the public. However, beacon technology works best when the hardware and software is seamlessly integrated in the development process, so make sure beacons are readily available during development.

An App. As discussed earlier, beacons are pretty simple. In order to be useful to a consumer, an app is necessary to interact with the beacon and provide geographically relevant information to the consumer. The user interface and experience should be the most carefully executed aspect of the beacon experience and should allow a user to seamlessly interact with their surroundings.

A Beacon Management Cloud. The choices for managing your app’s response to beacons are: hard code it into your app, or pull specific data from the cloud. By allowing your app to pull data from a cloud service, you can eliminate the need for app updates every time you add a beacon. You can also change a particular beacon’s function by changing the data that the beacon prompts the app to respond to.

A Beacon Management App. Eventually you might need a way to update the firmware on a beacon. Because most beacons don’t connect to Wifi, you will need an app that updates your beacon’s firmware via BLE

A Content Management System: A CMS allows you to change a beacon’s function quickly and easily by changing the data that the app pull when it is prompted by a beacon.

Beacons are not groundbreaking technology; BLE and Bluetooth-enabled smartphones have been around for years. The software that detects beacons and prompts actions on a smartphone is slightly newer and rapidly evolving. Since beacons work across all platforms and are fairly cost-effective to implement, they are very accessible for everyone from individual consumers to large corporations. By using beacons in tandem with powerful apps, the potential uses for beacon technology are almost infinite. It’s only a matter of time before we see them popping up all over and start using them on a daily basis to help make our smartphones a little smarter.