4 September 2014 – Beacon technology has the potential to take the user experience of your mobile app to an entirely new level using hyper-contextual location-based information. During Mobile Mentor’s recent mobility workshops there was some significant interest from the delegates on the topic of iBeacons. Therefore a blog post on iBeacons and related technology is clearly in order. It’s early days for this technology and many exciting applications for it are starting to emerge.
What is an iBeacon?
An iBeacon is an ‘indoor proximity system’. The name ‘iBeacon’ is proprietary to Apple but the underlying technology is not proprietary and can be used with more recent smart devices running iOS (7+), Android (4.4+ for emitting as well as receiving beacon advertisements) and presumably any other operating system eventually. iBeacon technology is simply beacon technology that is licensed by Apple, but the number of other players in this area is increasing rapidly. In this article I will be using the more generic term ‘beacon technology’.
Beacons use a new variant of Bluetooth called Bluetooth LE. LE stands for low energy and when they say low they really mean it. A beacon can last for up to 3 years on a single coin sized battery. This means that there are applications for this technology where battery replacement is not practical e.g. subcutaneous livestock tagging for instance or integration with permanent signage that will only be maintained every year or two.
A beacon is a wireless device that transmits a globally unique identifier at regular intervals (every 1.5 seconds by default). The communications protocol is 2-way and this allows a smartphone or tablet to prompt the beacon to reduce the transmitting interval temporarily for improved accuracy at the expense of battery life. Its range is up to 50 metres and a smartphone or tablet can measure its distance from a beacon (though only approximately at this time).
What is beacon technology used for?
So far beacons have been mostly used in in-venue retail situations, where the customer first downloads the retailer’s app which then allows the retailer to send advertising messages and special offers depending on where exactly the customer is located in the shop (see Macy’s as an example). Another obvious use case is museums which use beacons to replace the old audio tours that use clunky handsets, broadcasting information about their exhibits depending on where the visitor is located in the museum (see the Louvre). Beacons offer possibilities for all sorts of organisations. Imagine a hospital where staff need to spend a lot of time tracking down high value equipment, a local council who wants to let people know where the nearest facilities are or airlines who want to improve the customer experience at the airport and speed up boarding processes based on where their travellers are. You name it, if hyper-contextual information about location is required, beacon technology could provide a great solution.
It is important to note that smart devices themselves can also be used as moving beacons, which again increases the potential of the technology.
The future of beacon technology
The iBeacons that I purchased are from Estimote. They’re sold in a pack of 3 for US$99. Beyond the basic functionality of a beacon, each device includes an accelerometer (to detect motion) and a temperature sensor. These were recently enabled with a free firmware update.
Estimote have recently released a new type of beacon that they’re calling Sticker Beacons which are similar to their iBeacons except for having a much lower profile. They’re selling 10 in a pack for US$99.
The price and power consumption of these devices is dropping rapidly and I think it would be prudent to consider what will happen when the price drops to just a few cents per device. I believe that it will be a very small step for manufacturers of all types of devices to tie each of their products to a beacon allowing not only remote checking of status but remote control also.
As an exercise, consider each of the objects around you, the room that you’re in, the desk, books, business cards; the items in your pockets, pens, clocks, stationery items, your pets, appliances, clothes. Consider the processes that you go through when visiting a hotel or engaging with a customer. Wherever there’s some value in wireless detection, and/or control it will become possible.
There are profound changes coming (both positive and negative) and I believe that it’s important for everyone to appreciate how this technology is developing.
Here are some useful links for those of you who want to do some more research:
- Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBeacon
- Estimote’s web page: http://estimote.com
- iBeacons Blog: http://www.ibeaconsblog.com
- iBeacon for Developers: https://developer.apple.com/ibeacon/