If you're not yet familiar with them, the first thing to know about beacons is that they are surprisingly simple transmitting devices that notify other nearby devices of their presence via radio signals. They take advantage of Bluetooth technology existing in major mobile devices. Beacons' applications in retail are getting lots of press, but they’re also a natural fit for any situation requiring proximity to an object rather than a static physical location.
I’ll explain here what beacons are, how they work, how they are managed, and what the typical before- and after-beacon-installation considerations are. Then I’ll describe some usage scenarios.
Beacons utilize a subset of the Bluetooth 4.0 spec called “Bluetooth Low Energy” (marketed as “Bluetooth Smart”), which uses a protocol specialized to enable low-power devices to periodically broadcast small amounts of data. They remain switched off most of the time to minimize energy consumption.
Bluetooth operates within a small band of the UHF radio wave frequency range. So, like GPS, which uses higher microwave frequencies, line-of-sight is a key factor for signal strength. The beacon can broadcast up to a maximum range of about 70 meters in good conditions. Long-range beacons exist that typically achieve 200 meters, and ranges as high as 450 meters in good conditions.
Devices within range of the beacon fall into one of a few rough proximity zones: Data stored on the beacon is broadcast every 100-1,000 milliseconds. This rate is typically configurable and directly affects battery life. Apple recommends more frequent updates and requires vendors to support the 100 milliseconds rate to use the “iBeacon” logo, but some vendors recommend more optimal settings from ~350-650 milliseconds to conserve battery.
Some users have noted that at 100 milliseconds a beacon battery lasts between one and three months, while batteries can reportedly last two to three years at higher broadcast settings. Battery life can also vary based on individual vendors’ hardware, and user-specified settings such as advert rate or signal power level.
Beacons are typically powered by coin cell batteries, AA batteries, or USB. Coin cell batteries are small, and thus allow for small form factors, with capacities up to ~1,000 mAh. Some vendors use AA batteries, which can store twice that, but are obviously much larger. As one vendor of USB beacons puts it: “No batteries means no dead batteries.”
But you’ll need to choose a beacon with consideration for how variations affect mobile app requirements. For example, do you need to move your beacon frequently? Batteries offer positioning flexibility. If you need it indoors in a stationary position, then a wall outlet may be more convenient.
Bluetooth packets are easily spoofed, but an effective application (and/or backend system) design will help mitigate this. Transmitted data identifies only the beacon itself for further processing in a backend system, so security issues are not a concern.
It could be argued that a system that can’t gracefully deal with spoofing is poorly designed, except in instances where exact beacon positions are important. In the case of indoor beacons, spoofing is a location-based “attack.” Because beacon readers can detect signal strength, weeding out the problem if it ever happens should be a fairly simple task.
ID values stored directly on beacon firmware are broadcast and picked up with BLE by nearby devices that are listening specifically for beacon packets. All vendors we’ve reviewed provide means for managing their beacons through a desktop or mobile app. Beacons’ identifying information can be altered and firmware updated.
To differentiate your beacons from others, you can assign a universally unique identifier (UUID) along with a “major” and “minor” numeric value. Apple requires iOS apps to listen to specific UUIDs, while Android apps allow you to pick up all beacons in range. It’s a recurring restriction vs. freedom difference in philosophy between iOS and Android.
The UUID is typically meant to identify your organization, but can also identify some subset of your beacons. The UUID, major, and minor all constitute a beacon’s unique identification. A UUID can be randomly generated ahead of time and assigned to your beacons (and shared throughout your backend system as needed).
Apple imposes a listening limit of 20 UUIDs for an iOS app. The CoreLocation framework uses a shared pool of resources for monitoring beacons and geofences. The 20 may be prioritized by the OS for various reasons. Because apps can be slow to respond to changes, it’s wise to be conservative with UUIDs and rely more heavily on the major and minor values to differentiate individual beacons.
A very large number of beacons can be ranged within a single UUID. Major and minor in iBeacon-land are 16-bit unsigned integer values, each containing 65,536 possible values (from 0 to 65,535). Multiplying gives you ~4.3 billion beacons per UUID. With 20 UUIDs max per application, an app could detect up to ~85.9 billion beacons, which could all be yours for the low, low price of $1.718 trillion.
iOS devices can also act as beacons, but are more suitable for situations in which the device will broadcast while in the foreground (i.e. while it’s being used). Think point-of-sale.
Uses for beacons
The most talked about use case for beacons is retail. Walmart, Walgreens, Macy’s, Best Buy, Kroger, Meijer, Apple, American Eagle Outfitters, even Major League Baseball have tested beacons in various ways. Multichannel retail is an opportunity to re-engage with customers and offer valuable experiences. Walmart.com found that 12 percent of online sales were made to customers standing in one of its stores.
Indoor location is another area where beacons show signs for improved engagement. Major League Baseball is using beacons to help ticketholders find their seats, get merchandise coupons, and read about the game and players. Marketing platform inMarket is enabling brands, not just retailers, to tap into beacons in-store and at point-of-sale, in some cases offering loyalty points, grocery list reminders, and recipe suggestions.
Boundary-crossing beacon technology triggers an event based on proximity to an object. It’s useful in retail as well as home automation: A customer who walks into a store is greeted by a welcome message with deals, or a homeowner exiting her vehicle in the driveway triggers the front door to unlock.
As beacon technology evolves and improves, the application possibilities are endless. Please contact us to learn more.