This post is being made to condense the vast amounts of sites regarding Bluetooth’s Beacons (not just iBeacons). I hope it’s helpful to you in your development as it was for me.
iBeacons were designed to provide ways for businesses to deliver close proximity contact to customers. The Bluetooth SIG released the Bluetooth 4.0 standard which Apple built the iBeacon standard. It was not a flagship product, and only mentioned in a slide during the Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013 when it debuted. Was this a failing to market the end users, or was the intent always to have the business in mind?
At this point, advertisements come to us from all directions. Television, Radio, Print and Digital media, Billboards and our phone applications. We’re notified by buzzes, beeps, and vibrations when anything happens. If the goal of this technology was to create an additional conduit for us to be notified, it was going to have to be something really special. iBeacons didn’t have anything to offer the end user.
There were only a few companies which tried to sell their solutions to retailers supporting the iBeacon at this time, many retailers were just talking about how they could be used. The usefulness of the iBeacon delivered ads where only theoretical. In a time where users of smartphones are more accustomed with dismissing notifications than acting on them to know more, the execution was stale. There wasn’t a reason for the average consumer to opt-into these ads. Especially considering they required you opt-in using an app for each store.
So what are the other features we could use of the Bluetooth Spec?
Indoor location! Using the signal strength from each iBeacon in the area, we can know where exactly a person is and target those ads directly to them! That still doesn’t help the consumer, but it does make the ads more effective if we can know you’re now just in Aisle 4 of the supermarket, but that you’re right where the generic cereals are vs the name brands. Plus, with all the data they have on your previous buying habits, stores know if you’re more suggestible, and where that price point is. They can now literally offer you a different price than the person next to you. But that’s beside the point. Now Bluetooth can also help people find things. As I’m sure everyone has spent way too much time searching inside a grocery store for that one thing, or looking for your keys, now the end user can leverage this technology.
With location information, all sorts of public spaces are trying to augment their area through people’s smartphones, Supermarkets, museums, parks, malls, government buildings, factories, you name it and there’s likely an application for location services. Adding that infrastructure then opens up the door to other services. Consumers now benefit from easy directories, not losing their belongings (or their cats). Business owners now gain better security, asset tracking, and tailoring an experience of their space to the individual – which can lead to higher brand loyalty.
Here are a few companies that have been using a Beacon spec to provide services and build devices
- 5280 Mobile
- AirSenze Inc
- BlueSense Networks
- Cisco (SAgE chip)
- Glimworm Beacons
- Meridian apps
- Radius Networks
And countless others. Seriously, go on Kickstarter to see how everyone is adding beacons to their products.
Now it’s useful to the end user, and the technology provides a higher value to companies. The ecosystem, or “Beacosystem” as some have coined is growing. But Apple patented the iBeacon, and even though they don’t own the Bluetooth spec, they do occasionally exercise that patent right on other companies. In addition developers have had some issues using the iBeacon spec because that CoreLocation Framework has limitations, along with licensing issues .
Others have tried to fix this straddling development and create their own spec from the main Bluetooth one.
Alt Beacons – built by Radius Networks, released under the Creative Commons license. and can work with both iBeacons and Eddystone
Estimote – Incubated with YCombinator. They use a Nearable protocol and are compatible with other specs.
And Gimbal – Built by Qualcomm
(There are others, but these seem to be the big players. In the references I’ll list some tutorials I found for these. )
Each of them has their own unique ways of communicating. For instance, URI Beacons don’t send the typical UUID+Major+Minor transmission, instead, they send URLs. Most seem to use the same Texas Instruments CC2540 chip, but some are using Nordic Semiconductors or their own proprietary chipset. They also differ in accuracy and ease of use. While the vanilla iBeacon spec will tell you if you are very close, near, or far away from a beacon, others are made to accurately triangulate your location. It’s also possible to track the bluetooth device passively, as in, the wearer or owner doesn’t need to opt-in for a service with an application giving permissions or by some user agreement. Some have said that it isn’t possible for iBeacons to track a person without them knowing it, but it’s only partly true. While the advertising information that is broadcaster by the beacons is 1-way, using a network of beacons to track a person will be anonymous until that person is identified in another way. Like, for instance, at the cash register. Having a required opt-in process will be important going forward, even if it means having more apps to opt-into these services.
There are also NFC and WiFi based services. Even RFID has some presence. With the wide differences these technologies have, it’ll be interesting to see which is the best match for indoor locating.
Jared and I will be presenting a demo on using Beacons with the newly released Win10 IoT Core on October 24th during Atlanta Code Camp. Let us know what you’d like to see!
Comparison between Beacon technologies