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Next Level of Location Awareness

Apple's announcement of extended support for its iBeacon platform in the latest version of iOS has made beacons a hot topic. The technology is set to drive a new level of proximity-based services in smartphones and other mobile devices. But what exactly is a beacon? Let's take a closer look at the technology and its applications.

A beacon is essentially a low-cost Bluetooth Smart wireless transmitter, designed for indoor use, which is placed in a particular location or point of interest. The beacon transmits its identity to any Bluetooth Smart Ready devices within range; those hosting a companion app can be located, and the software can trigger various types of notifications. It could be that suitable information about that point of interest is displayed, or devices may allow audible alerts or vibrations.

Because beacons have the potential to locate smartphones indoors to within a few meters, they could potentially provide a kind of indoor GPS, but crucially, they could also allow content specifically targeted to that location to be delivered to users who want it.

The development of Bluetooth v4.0, the technology behind Bluetooth Smart (which uses technology that adheres to the Bluetooth specification's Low Energy Core Configuration and was previously called Bluetooth low energy) and Bluetooth Smart Ready, has made the whole beacon idea feasible; devices with the right hardware can now communicate over reasonable distances using only a very small amount of power, essential for battery life in today's mobile devices.

Beacons themselves, depending on the exact implementation of the hardware, can achieve up to two years of battery life from a single coin cell, despite a range of more than 50 meters. In fact, Bluetooth Smart uses such a small amount of energy, it lends itself to technologies like energy harvesting that do away with the battery altogether. This can only help the adoption of beacons, since never having to replace the battery can reduce maintenance requirements.

Promoted by Apple
While the idea of using Bluetooth Smart beacons for indoor micro-location has been around for a while, a recent move of support from Apple means it looks set to enter the mainstream. Apple's iBeacon platform launched in 2013, but, with the 7.1 version of iOS, Apple gave the technology another boost. With the new operating system, devices were set to automatically listen for beacons, even without a beacon app running on the smartphone. This functionality also makes it harder to switch off notifications once the app is installed.

Although Apple is pushing its iBeacon platform for its Bluetooth Smart Ready iPhones, iPads, and iPods, the technology is actually platform-independent — any Bluetooth Smart beacon can communicate with Apple's devices, since Bluetooth wireless technology is inherently interoperable. This means any manufacturer's beacon can communicate with Android devices and other smartphones that are equipped with Bluetooth Smart Ready capability, too.

Beacon technology has been compared to other location-based technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC), especially since Apple's version of NFC, AirDrop, uses Bluetooth technology to function. While NFC was designed for mobile payments, Apple uses its iBeacon technology for payments when users in the Apple Store check out with the company's app.

In practice, Bluetooth Smart and NFC are very different. NFC requires the sender and receiver to be very close together, usually within a centimeter, requiring the user to deliberately position the device next to the other terminal. In contrast, Bluetooth Smart does not require such close proximity, operating over a range in the order of tens of meters, so it can be used to communicate with smartphones that are still in the user's pocket. NFC also requires additional dedicated hardware in smartphones, whereas most have Bluetooth Smart Ready capability as standard.

Another factor driving beacon technology is that Bluetooth Smart ICs are widely available from many silicon vendors, and support infrastructure exists that can make beacon hardware and software development as straightforward as possible. For example, Nordic Semiconductor offers a beacon reference design, based on its nRF51822 System-on-Chip (SoC), which can be used to get iBeacon or proprietary beacon designs for iOS or Android smartphones up and running quickly (see Figure 1). The kit features companion smartphone apps for iOS 7 and Android 4.1/4.3 smartphones, plus Nordic firmware.

Nordic Semiconductor's beacon reference design kit makes designing beacon hardware and software easy.

Nordic Semiconductor’s beacon reference design kit makes designing beacon hardware and software easy.

A sticking point for beacon design is typically the RSSI (received signal strength indication), which is used to estimate the distance between the beacon and the smartphone and is essential to determine the smartphone's location. The RSSI can differ between smartphone models because of the electromagnetic profiles of their enclosures. A beacon kit can have a tuning function included that allows consistent performance, regardless of which smartphone the beacon is communicating with.

For the rest of the story, see EBN sister site EDN .

9 comments on “Next Level of Location Awareness

  1. Daniel
    September 11, 2014

    “Because beacons have the potential to locate smartphones indoors to within a few meters, they could potentially provide a kind of indoor GPS, but crucially, they could also allow content specifically targeted to that location to be delivered to users who want it.”

    Sally, what's the need of such indoor tracking? Is it worth and useful to invest in such devices having a limited range (few meters?)

  2. Sally Ward-Foxton
    September 11, 2014

    Hi Jacob, I've heard talk about using beacons for mapping big indoor spaces that can't get GPS coverage, such as airports and shopping malls, to help direct consumers to where they want to be.

    On the flip side of beacons' range being limited, it means the phone knows its (indoor) location to an accuracy of a 'few meters' once it picks up a beacon signal, so it's pretty well set up for this type of application.

  3. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 11, 2014

    Thanks for weighing in on this. I think the short range nature of this could be an asset in some of these focused applications. In the retail industry, there's a huge push to touch users as they shop.

  4. Daniel
    September 12, 2014

    “I've heard talk about using beacons for mapping big indoor spaces that can't get GPS coverage, such as airports and shopping malls, to help direct consumers to where they want to be.”

    Sally, I got the point. Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Daniel
    September 12, 2014

    “On the flip side of beacons' range being limited, it means the phone knows its (indoor) location to an accuracy of a 'few meters' once it picks up a beacon signal, so it's pretty well set up for this type of application.”

    Sally, I think for indoor usage small range is enough. For big shopping malls and warehouses is it possible to network 2-3 beacons?

  6. SunitaT
    September 17, 2014

    @Jacob: When you say indoor tracking, it really opens up the possibility of so many things. Earlier I was reading about how keys get lost in a home, and so the keys were set with beacons which told the smartphone where it was.

  7. SunitaT
    September 17, 2014

    Indoor tracking as well as predictive marketing can be accomplished with iBeacons or Beacons in general. In marketing, these beacons can provide notifications to users on what they should be buying once they are close to it. This can be achieved with a home automation that keeps track of supplies and pings the smartphone whenever it thinks that the larder needs to be resupplied. This ping is scanned by beacons and they notify the smartphone that the supplies are where the beacons are at.

  8. Daniel
    September 19, 2014

    “When you say indoor tracking, it really opens up the possibility of so many things. Earlier I was reading about how keys get lost in a home, and so the keys were set with beacons which told the smartphone where it was.”

    tirlapur, it can be of different application and such possibilities has to be derived. 

  9. Daniel
    September 19, 2014

    “Indoor tracking as well as predictive marketing can be accomplished with iBeacons or Beacons in general. In marketing, these beacons can provide notifications to users on what they should be buying once they are close to it. This can be achieved with a home automation that keeps track of supplies and pings the smartphone whenever it thinks that the larder needs to be resupplied. This ping is scanned by beacons and they notify the smartphone that the supplies are where the beacons are at.”

     Tirlapur,  such mobile applications are in market by reading RFID or qcodes

     

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