What is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technology? How does it work?
August 5, 2014
What is a Beacon?
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 proximity-based, context-aware messages.
A beacon transmits signals which allow another device to determine its proximity to the broadcaster. In a store, a beacon lets a customer’s app determine that it’s close to a particular aisle, or in a particular department. The beacon doesn’t transmit content, it simply transmits a signal that lets a user’s phone or tablet figure out what its proximity is to the beacon.
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 for proximity marketing. 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.
Is iBeacon Apple’s own hardware beacon?
iBeacon is not an off-the-shelf beacon that retailers can buy and install in their stores. There’s news though that Apple has filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission suggesting that the company wants to manufacture iBeacon hardware.
What is Bluetooth Low Energy (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 Bluetooth beacons better than GPS for geolocation?
In terms of range, beacons function in the interim of 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.
Image Source: tnooz
What is a beacon manager? Why do you need one?
A beacon manager app or cloud platform allows marketers and business owners to configure and manage a fleet of beacons remotely. As a part of configuring and managing you can rename the beacon, adjust the hardware settings such as transmitting range and interval, monitor the beacon status and battery life, toggle Physical Web notifications.
Beaconstac’s cloud platform is an example of a beacon manager. It allows doing all of the above and more. Beaconstac allows you to monitor and configure your fleet of beacons remotely, via the cloud platform or a beacon manager app.
Can I use beacons for my business if I am not a developer, or if I do not have an in-house developer?
Beacons require development efforts if you want to buy beacon hardware from an online store and then want to build an app to receive beacon notifications. However, with beacon manager apps and platforms you do not need developers. You can create and assign campaigns to beacons using platforms like Beaconstac.
How are Bluetooth beacons different from NFC?
iBeacon is the first proximity marketing 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 70 m.
What is the battery-life of a beacon?
Most beacons have a battery life of two years as the energy consumption is really low. The battery is generally non-rechargeable and needs to be replaced.
Different beacon form factors have different battery lives. You can check out the battery lives of various beacon hardware here.
What are the barriers to the wide adoption of this technology?
Barriers to wide adoption of BLE beacon technology are:
a) Several layers of security: customers have to turn on their mobile phone’s Bluetooth, allow location services detection through the relevant app and opt-in to receive in-store or indoor notifications;
b) Myths about privacy: A lot of customers today are still wary of being ‘tracked’. Retailers could be concerned about data theft from beacons. In reality, the beacons just pass the information along to the cloud, they don’t store anything
Do beacons work only with iPhones or with Android phones too? For beacons to work, should the app be always running, even if only in the background?
Beacons work with both iPhones and Android phones, but they work differently. With the launch of iOS 7.1 in March this year (iOS 7.1 launch) Apple announced a game-changing improvement to iBeacon. This is that, once an app is installed it will “look” for beacons even if an app is shut down or a user has rebooted his/her phone.
Thus, iOS 7 devices can now constantly scan for BLE and wake up relevant apps, even if they are closed when they come within range of a beacon.
Here’s how you can implement a beacon proximity marketing campaign on iOS devices.
Google Nearby on all Android devices and CloseBy on Samsung phones scan for beacon notifications in the range and display the message linked to the beacon signal.
Android devices, however, do not have a beacon system of this type at the operating-system level. Currently, the only way to wake up in response to a beacon in Android is to run a service in the background that continuously listens. Hence, Android apps need to scan for BLE, and so there is more of a battery drain for Android users when beacons scan for apps.
Android, however, is working on proper BLE (iBeacon) support in Android L, the next version of Android currently in developer preview.
The typical range of Bluetooth low-energy radio modules is up to 70 m (230 ft.). It depends on the location too, because radio signals can be absorbed or diffracted. The smallest beacon form factor, keychain beacon has a maximum range of 25 meters and whereas the long-range beacons have a maximum range of 300 meters.
How precise is beacon-detection indoors?
Though it depends on the intended use and immediate surroundings too, generally one could detect the presence of beacons as far away as 50-70 meters or as little as 10 inches, so it is very accurate. Given its accuracy, beacons can be used in store aisles, museums and car dealerships where business owners want to talk about a specific product or model.
Which devices are compatible with beacons?
All Bluetooth 4.0-enabled devices are capable of picking up BLE signals, these include all iOS devices manufactured since 2013. The most popular devices are iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 3, Samsung Galaxy S III and Motorola RAZR.
Beacons can be placed outdoors, however, temperature affects battery life. Some beacons are also waterproof so they can be placed outdoors. External environment changes such as rains can reduce the range of the signal through. Check out the long-range beacons and outdoor beacons.
Do beacons talk with all phones that come in its proximity or with specific apps only?
All Android phones and iPhones with beacon scanning functionalities receive notifications. Some businesses keep other apps from accessing its beacons’ location data by letting only authorized apps interact with their beacons. This allows them to maintain a closed network of apps that can interact with their beacons.
Most beacons today, however, 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.
Do beacons send data to phones?
Yes, they do, but those are only small bits of data, typically a unique identifier. This allows mobile apps to differentiate between beacons and perform an action when necessary (that is, a location-triggered notification). The identifier consists of three components: a UUID, which is specific to a beacon vendor; a “major,” which is specific to a region, such as a store location; and a “minor,” which is specific to a subregion, such as a department within a store.
Do Bluetooth beacons send in-store offers based on shopper locations or apps do?
This is a very common misconception about beacons. Beacons do not send notifications to a user’s phone; apps do. Beacons simply send a unique identifier to an app (akin to a geographic landmark), to tell the app that it is entering the beacon range. That signal makes an app-aware that it’s time to send the user a notification, trigger messages or perform an action.
Beacons don’t transmit content – they transmit a location, enabling apps to retrieve and surface location-relevant content.
Beacons are just transmitters. They do not receive or collect any signals from mobile devices. These devices don’t detect the presence of a shopper’s mobile device and therefore have no ability to track his/her location.
The relevant app on a mobile device is actually what detects the beacons. More specifically, an app installed on the mobile device can ask to be notified when the device nears a specific beacon. This works very similar to how geofences work when a mobile device crosses into a specific geographic location.
How can a user opt-out of in-store tracking?
If a user does not want to interact with beacons, he/she can opt-out by not allowing the app to use location services (iOS), turning Bluetooth off, or uninstalling the app on their phone.
Eddystone is an open BLE beacon format introduced by Google, that takes the primary capability of beacons – their ability to broadcast a unique number via short-range Bluetooth signals – and extends it to a greater degree. It is cross-platform and capable of supporting Android, iOS or any platform that supports BLE beacons.
What are the differences between Eddystone and iBeacon?
a) iBeacon is Android and iOS compatible, but native only for iOS
b) Eddystone is Android and iOS compatible and maybe a native part of the upcoming Android M release
c) iBeacon broadcasts one advertising packet and a unique ID number ( this comprises of the UUID, Major and Minor numbers)
d) Eddystone broadcasts three different packets: a unique ID number (Eddystone-UID), a URL address (Eddystone-URL), and sensor telemetry (Eddystone-TLM)
For the Eddystone-URL to work, should there be an app on the customer’s device? How does this work?
For a customer’s device to detect the Eddystone-URL, we need an app that is capable of reading that packet and displaying it to the user. At the moment it is only supported by Chrome on iOS and the Physical Web browser on Android. Even the Chrome browser implementation on iOS is predicated on that fact that notifications for the ‘Today’ notifications are turned on. It’s not that the Chrome browser will automatically open and show the web page.
You can read more on questions about Eddystone beacons in our Eddystone FAQs blog.
If you are planning a beacon pilot, take a look at Beaconstac, that includes everything you need to get started. Using Beaconstac you can set up your own campaign, without a developer’s help!