5 Common Misconceptions around Beacons (and the Reality)
January 29, 2015
We would all agree unanimously, that beacons have been in vogue since June 2013. Year 2014, has been a good year for beacons, with large scale deployments, dozens of trials and major brands jumping on to the beacon bandwagon etc. While there has been substantial buzz around beacons, there is very little information available on how to actually deploy beacons on the field.
As with any other new technology, iBeacon has had its share of misinterpretations and cross-reading. While initially beacons were widely squashed for numerous privacy and security threats, now is a stage where everyone is bullish about these devices. So much so that, a lot of articles on beacons totally downplay the limitations beacons have, and project it as the know all, be all devices of today.
While there’s no denying the fact that beacons are a great tool for businesses to enhance customer experiences, generate more revenue, and create brand awareness, they too come with their set of limitations and drawbacks. We would all agree that to make the best use of any technology, it’s best to know its limitations and then work a way around these limitations.
Here are some common misconceptions around beacons, and the reality:
1. Beacons and iBeacon are the same thing
To this day, this prevails as one of the most common misunderstandings when it comes to beacons. In reality, beacon is a hardware device that makes use of iBeacon technology.
iBeacon is not a 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. Not only does it allow iPhones and iPads to constantly scan for Bluetooth devices nearby, but also lets them emit beacon signals to wake apps up on other iOS devices.
2. Spotting someone’s proximity to a beacon, accurately is always easy
This is a common perception brands and agencies have developed reading and listening to all the glossy pitches about how using beacons is like ‘magic’. Like every other technology, iBeacon too is not a “fool-proof” technology and using it is not a cakewalk.
The truth, however, is that beacons have their own limitations when it comes to ‘accurately’ spotting someone. Most BLE applications we envision, assume that the signals should form a complete circle around the beacon in question. The broadcast radius of a BLE beacon typically defines a “zone.” A smartphone can use the BLE signal to determine its distance from the beacon. Though, the iBeacon service on the phone can note a user’s entrance or exit from a zone (and can have a “I see you! kind of reaction), without a directional antenna, it does not know whether the user is behind or in front of the beacon. If there are multiple micro-zones within a store, for example, the user’s phone, which can sense all beacons in range, must discern which zone a user is in so as to trigger the appropriate behavior.
This is difficult to do accurately for a couple of reasons. The most significant one being that beacon signals are actually erratic. They are not completely smooth signals as they are assumed to be. This is often left to the developer to build an app around it. This is a major issue faced during most beacon implementations.
Factors such as interference come into the picture. This is true especially for large spaces like hotels and museums. The broadcast signal can, at times look like an amoeba, with some stretches shifting farther than others. Imagine that the aforementioned zones are shifting, overlapping or disappearing. How easy will it be to accurately locate someone? This is the reason why, for features such as in-store navigation, it’s best to use a combination of Wi-Fi triangulation and beacons to get the best results.
3. You don’t need a data connection for beacon features to come into play
iBeacon protocol allows only a small amount of information to be passed to a user’s device. This could be enough for basic use cases such as ordering food, or asking for a sales associate’s help. For complex use cases such as in-store navigation, however, you need a robust data connection on a user’s device.
For applications such as home automation, Wi-fi can be used in combination with beacons. In large stores, though, asking customers to connect to Wi-Fi can be prohibitive. In such cases, relying on cell coverage is the best route. At the same time, we are all aware of spotty data connection in-stores.
4. Locked phones have no effect on users’ beacon experience
It takes significantly longer for a phone in a pocket to see a nearby beacon, and there’s a good chance that the phone will miss it altogether. After the iOS7.1 update, it’s evident that iBeacon is the only BLE service that stays active when a phone is locked. That’s not a big deal except that Apple has kept iBeacon very limited in capabilities when a phone is in that state. Instead of recognizing more specific ranges like immediate, near, and far, iBeacon only tracks a locked phone’s entry into a zone, meaning that those designing the experience have only one “entrance” opportunity to trigger an action.
A locked phone will only notice a new iBeacon once during a specific session, limiting the ability to track people as they move between zones. When a user’s phone does see a new beacon, the relevant app has only 10 seconds to do something, which is not much time to confirm a user’s location, let alone trigger an action!
5. BLE beacons provide real-time experiences
Fluctuating beacon signal strength can create a delay in recognizing an app, making it difficult to trigger actions in real-time. Also, most beacon platforms collect multiple readings from BLE beacons to return data that’s more accurate than a single reading. This filtering takes time – and leads to a delay.
Another factor is that, though, Apple devices read beacon signals as often as they transmit, they only report it once a second. This might sound okay, as it’s still fast, but it’s still not real-time, so you can expect some drop in beacon detection.
Other reasons for the delay have to do with power management. The “low energy” aspect of the Low Energy Bluetooth specification means a coin-size battery is meant to last for months or years. To achieve this power efficiency, most BLE beacons broadcast very infrequently.
Just like BLE beacons, phones attempt to save battery power by turning on their Bluetooth antennas only occasionally. Because BLE doesn’t have a standard on/off interval, a phone doesn’t know how to efficiently turn on its antenna to look for beacons. So it’s a hit or miss whether a beacon and a phone will be on at the same time and see each other. Even a phone’s age factors into how often it wakes up to look for beacons. Older models tend to check for beacons less frequently than newer ones due to more restrictive controls around battery usage.
Thus, though iBeacon is really a game changing technology, no technology is perfect. In order to take advantage of all its features, we need to understand its drawbacks and pitfalls and then tackle these with the right information and the right approach!