iBeacon, Bluetooth Low Energy, and Mobile Apps as a Service

(June 1, 2015) – Apple didn’t initially make a big deal about their iBeacon platform or support for it in iOS. It appeared as a single slide in a WWDC presentation in 2013 and then was a focus of a developer breakout session in 2014. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they’ve been installing hardware with partners and evangelizing major developers to help bring proximity based services to iOS apps. And like most other things launched by Apple, the rest of the tech world is trying to catch up.

What is iBeacon?

iBeacon is a set of standardized hardware protocols and new iOS software components that have been trademarked by Apple. They support app interactions based on proximity between Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart) devices and smart devices like phones and tablets. iBeacon is comprised of two primary elements. The first is a small Bluetooth “beacon” that broadcasts an “advertisement” in a strict format defined by Apple. The second is a set of software enhancements in iOS that help developers build app features triggered by interactions between a user’s device and the beacon.

iBeacon vs. Beacon

Beacon is the industry-standard term used for Bluetooth Low Energy devices that broadcast “advertisements” according to Apple’s specifications. Other operating systems support consuming the data that Beacons emit, and there are Beacon hardware providers that are building both Android and software support to try to bring standardization across platforms. Below is a list of the top providers of beacon hardware and software:

Most beacons are also certified by Apple to bear the iBeacon trademark. There is no difference other than certified registration with Apple. What makes a beacon implementation interesting is how apps interact with them.

Beacon Use Cases

If you think of GPS as positioning (location), then think of beacons as proximity. They are most valuable for determining if a smartphone is close to a physical object and doing things on the device (through an app) based on that proximity. One of the primary use cases is showing the user a message when they come within range of a beacon. Another might involve tailoring content inside of an app based on proximity to a beacon or set of beacons. Still more complex use cases use indoor positioning. Beacons can be used to triangulate a user’s position indoor just like Apple or Google use wi-fi and cellular signals to enhance device location while outside. However, the bluetooth signal provided by beacon can be disrupted easily by the human body, so positioning is a challenging technical problem.

While the examples above are the most common ways an app can respond when in range of a beacon, there are endless possibilities. The beacon itself does not tell the app to do anything. It simply tells the app “Hey, I’m close to you, here’s how close, and here’s who I am.” Based on that knowledge, the app can do whatever you want it to:

  • There have been applications that assist blind people in moving through a subway.
  • The San Francisco 49ers implemented beacons in Levi Stadium when it was built in order to help fans find the nearest hot dog stand.
  • Retailers are looking to use beacons as a means to provide an enhanced in-store experience. Not only could they send a quick message as you’re passing the front door of the store to draw you in, they can give detailed information about specific products or departments. If you’re registered with the app and have purchased men’s jeans in the past, you might get a 15% discount coupon when you enter the store and then another once you’re in the men’s department, pointing you to the jeans section.
  • Another interesting use case would be in a museum. Since beacons can be configured to adjust their broadcast strength, they can signal as far as 70 meters or as close as a few centimeters. In a museum, you could allow visitors to get contextual information about the exhibit only if they touch their phone to a label in the area.

Zones

Most beacon solutions are also aware of “zones” around the beacon. Even though the actual proximity can be hard to measure due to interference, most software solutions that consume the beacon (ibeacon, estimote SDK, etc.) include preset zones that reflect how far you are from it. You could provide an audio tour app that alerts the user when they are within range of a new tour stop. Then, direct them to the stop at the farthest zone, giving them the ability to tap a label on a sign that initiates audio for that stop.

You could even build a scavenger hunt app where users are rewarded for finding various beacons around a city. They might get extra points for locating the actual beacon versus just coming within range of it.

Beacons can also be attached to moving objects. Crowdfunded startup Tile has built an app and hardware service that allows you to attach small beacon “tiles” to all of your possessions so you can find them if they get lost. This works just like other beacon applications. The tile broadcasts a signal every few seconds. The app can then respond to the beacon and help you know when you are getting closer to it. So if you lose your phone in the couch, their app can help you locate it quickly.

What Does the Future Look Like?

It’s hard to know if beacon will be around for a long time. Apple is pushing it very hard, and even if it isn’t the most advanced technology, it works today for what it is intended for. We think it’s going to revolutionize the way we interact with places and things around us. The internet of things (IoT) revolution is coming, and beacon is just a glimpse into a future where physical objects are smart and can interact with our phones, watches, and cars. For now, they are a pretty basic enabler of those interactions. All of the intelligence is on the phone and the app. That’s why we’re interested in it. At Bluebridge, we think there are many app experiences waiting to be enhanced by beacon.

The future is exciting. Beacons are going to be everywhere, and apps you use every day are going to start doing amazing things because of it. Like all technology, it will likely be adopted slowly and app makers will take some time to figure out user experiences that are compelling, but once they do, it will blend into the rest of our lives just like smartphones, tablets, and apps have.

 

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Author: Brian Deyo

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