Beacons: all you need to know about them

Published on Sep 28, 2015 in App Development

Beacons are little gadgets that can broadcast location-based information to your smart devices via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). These beacons are then detected by receiver devices, like mobile apps. Most of the beacons broadcast data using Apple's iBeacon technology.

iBeacon is a protocol created by Apple, which was first introduced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013. Apple was the first company to make this technology globally known, but the underlying technology (BLE) was created by Nokia. The concept of “beacons” is universal to all hardware compatible with Bluetooth Smart/BLE that is available with Bluetooth 4.0, but the iBeacon name and protocol are trademarked by Apple.

What does iBeacon make?

iBeacon extends Location Services in your iOS or Android device, allowing mobile apps to listen for signals from beacons in the physical world and react to them. In other words, iBeacon lets apps understand their physical position on a micro-local scale, what makes them perfect to deliver hyper-contextual content to users based on location. This way, the iBeacon technology enables devices like smartphones and tablets to perform actions when they are close to a beacon, providing users extremely personalized experiences.

Companies can use beacons to create amazing apps that connect the real world to your smart device. It seems that the use of beacons is growing fast, and they can in fact change forever the way brands communicate with consumers.

beacons graphic

Instead of using latitude and longitude to define the location, iBeacon uses a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). BLE is a wireless personal area network technology used for transmitting data over short distances.

The iBeacon technology consists of two parts: a broadcaster (beacon device) and a receiver (smartphone + app). On the one hand, the beacon device is always communicating “I am here”, broadcasting a small amount of data every second approximately. On the other hand, the receiver (app) detects these signals and acts accordingly, depending on how close or far it is from them. Apps installed on a smartphone listen for beacons all the time, and when an app hears a beacon, it communicates the relevant data.

Beacons’ uses

Beacons’ possibilities are infinite: they can be used to develop apps that feature contactless payments, proximity-based campaigns or automated check-ins, among others. As an example, beacons can be located at specific points such as stores, bus stops or vending machines and send their messages from there.

iBeacon’s main strength is that it allows brands, retailers, apps, etc. to exactly know where a customer is in the physical world, thus allowing them to send users hyper-local and highly meaningful information: iBeacon offers brands the chance to directly send significant messages and advertisements to their potential users.

One of the major uses of beacons is to help provide amazing in-shop experience, offering customers special deals through mobile marketing. For example, thanks to beacons, when you go to a retail store, that brand will be able to send you the last discounts, special offers, targeted advertisements, push messages telling you to check something in the shop or the new arrivals, all right on your smartphone.

Other employments of iBeacon include making PayPal payments easier, by automatically checking in every time you shop in a particular store. Another interesting scenario can be restaurants; beacons can automatically detect the waiter’s exact location in the room, knowing which table he is at. This way, the waiter won’t need to say the table he is serving when sending the orders to the kitchen. Beacons can be really useful for automation aims too. For instance, your garage door can open once your car stops by without having to press any button.


iBeacon compatible devices

iBeacon runs on iOS 7 or later, and you must have Bluetooth turned on. Any iOS device compatible with Bluetooth version 4.0 (which incorporates Bluetooth Smart/BLE) should support the technology to detect iBeacon. Apple’s iBeacon compatible devices include the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, New iPad, Mini iPad, New IPod Touch and the Macintosh computers with OS X Mavericks.

About Android, Android 4.3+ devices including the Samsung Galaxy S3/S4/S4 Mini, Samsung Galaxy Note 2/3, HTC One, Google/LG Nexus 7 2013 version/Nexus 4/Nexus 5, HTC Butterfly and OnePlus One support iBeacon. Finally, Windows Phone devices with the Lumia Cyan update or above are also iBeacon compatible.

For now, Apple's iBeacon is the most implemented protocol everywhere, but Google is entering the market with an open beacon format called Eddystone. Google intends this to be an open-source ecosystem, and they plan to use beacons to send non-interruptive notifications to Google Now so they can show you relevant information based on your location.


Some beacon devices by Griffin and Estimote

The Griffin Beacon is an infrared blaster that pairs with your phone through Bluetooth so you can control all your AV devices from one place. It comes in two models, one for iOS and the other one for Android, at a price of $69.99.

Estimoteoffers two very interesting beacon options: first, we find the Estimote Beacons, little wireless sensors that you can attach to any location or object. But what’s even more exciting are Estimote Stickers, which are the same thing but smaller and thinner: you can stick them to any object, like a shoe, so the beacon provides users all the information about that particular object when they are nearby. Estimote Beacons and Stickers are certified Apple iBeacon compatible and support Google’s Eddystone too.

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