What Are Beacons?

What are Beacons?

Beacons are low-cost, low-powered transmitters equipped with Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE (also called Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart) that can be used to deliver location-aware, context-aware messages.

They are ideal for pinpointing the location of smartphones indoors, where GPS and Wi-Fi aren’t always effective, and sending alerts and data to apps on those devices. Google’s entry to the beacon arena has led to further developments that permit beacons to transmit URL’s directly to the devices themselves. Also while GPS operates at macro range, beacons work at micro range, giving businesses an opportunity to interact with customers not only at a store level but to target narrowly at an aisle or even at a fixture.

What is an iBeacon?

The terms iBeacon and beacon are often used interchangeably. The main difference is that iBeacon is not a physical product, it’s a technology. It’s a trademark of Apple for their future BLE products and systems. It is a system built into the latest version of Apple’s iOS 7 mobile operating system that lets iPhones and iPads constantly scan for Bluetooth devices nearby; they can also emit beacon signals to wake up apps on other iOS devices.

Apple introduced iBeacon during the launch of iOS7 at the World Wide Developer Conference, in June last year.

What is an Eddystone Beacon?

Eddystone, inspired by the lighthouse off the British coast, is Google’s entry into this space. According to Google, the company spoke to a number of beacon providers from the US to understand the current limitations of the Apple technology.

Eddystone appears, on the surface to be far more powerful than iBeacon. Not only is it compatible with both iOS and Android, but it’s also more flexible and opens up the technology to a wider section of use cases. The ability to broadcast URLs directly to a user’s device is almost definitely there to help advertisers not only understand how many people have dwelled in front of an ad, but also to make it easy to visit a campaign page.

What is BLE?

Bluetooth Low Energy (also called Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart) is the specification for the type of signals that beacons transmit. Bluetooth LE has the advantage that it is low energy and is ‘native’ to most modern phones and tablets.

How are beacons different from GPS? Are beacons better than GPS for geo-location?

In terms of range, beacons function between NFC (too narrow) and GPS (too broad) ranges, and that is what makes it more effective than the other two.

They are ideal for detecting smartphones indoors, where GPS isn’t always effective, and can communicate with apps on devices when they are indoors or outside.

How are beacons different from NFC?

iBeacon is the first proximity technology (with Apple already on board) that is supported by all major mobile platforms and is thus more popular than NFC.

NFC range is up to 20 cm but the optimal range is < 4 cm . With BLE technology, beacons have a significantly larger range, of approximately 100 m.

What is the range of a beacon’s signal?

The typical range of Bluetooth low-energy radio modules is up to 200 m. It depends on the location too, because radio signals can be absorbed or diffracted.

How precise is beacon-detection?

Though it depends on the intended use and immediate surroundings too, generally one could detect the presence of beacons as far away as 100-200 meters or as little as 10 inches, so it is very accurate.

Can beacons be placed outdoors?

Beacons can be placed outdoors, however temperature affects battery life. Some beacons are also waterproof (eg. Estimote) so they can be placed outdoors. External environment changes such as rain can reduce the range of the signal though.

Do beacons talk with all apps that come in its proximity or with specific apps only?

Most beacons today are “open network,” meaning their unique identifier is publicly available for developers. This is so that third-party developers can create in-store apps that will work with their beacons. For example, a mall may let each store inside it access public beacons placed in the mall. However it is expected that Google will, given time, integrate beacon detection into their core android operating system.

Do beacons send data to phones?

Yes they do, but those are only small bits of data, typically a unique identifier or a URL. This allows mobile apps to differentiate between beacons and perform an action when necessary (that is, a location-triggered notification).