Ever since Apple announced iBeacon technology in mid 2013, the buzz around it has been endless. Yet, while everyone wants a piece of this technology, it seems like most people do not understand the exact mechanism and what it can and can’t be used for.
In the first of a two part blog series we’ll aim to dispel some of the myths surrounding beacon technology and shed light on their features and why everyone is getting so excited about them.
What are Beacons?
Beacons are small radio transmitters based on the new standard Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) protocol, also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth 4.0. They come as small units or stickers, powered by USB or battery and some additionally contain accelerometers, thermometers and storage space.
In fact, they are becoming smarter by the day and many manufacturers are releasing Internet connected beacons now, such as Kontak.io, who have proven to be (one of) the best manufacturers of beacons during various trials.
iBeacon on the other hand is often used interchangeably for Beacons (hardware), but in fact refers to a specific protocol (software) within BLE, that was developed by Apple. This allows phones to detect iBeacon signals even if the application, which is built to detect them, is not open and the phone is locked. The only condition being, that Bluetooth is switched on.
So what is all the excitement about? There are a number of things that make beacon technology different to anything we had before:
Until now, the primary way for our devices to locate themselves was through GPS, and while this is a great technology it has serious limitations. Above all, it doesn’t work indoors and is simply not precise enough to connect the physical world with the digital one. GPS would for example never be able to tell which table you are sitting at in a restaurant, whereas beacons can do just that!
We all know the feeling when using Google maps or any other GPS heavy app drains all our precious battery life. The same has been true for Bluetooth for so long and we all got used to switching it off - but not anymore. With the new Bluetooth 4.0, which is what beacons run off, energy usage has been tremendously reduced and you can have it on all day without a major impact on your battery life – and you will! To keep all the smart devices we have on and around us “smart” they need to be connected to our smartphones, and that happens over Bluetooth 4.0.
If any app was to determine your location and perform actions, it had to be open and active on your phone until now. However, with iBeacon this has changed and your phone is able to monitor for beacons in the background, even while you are running around with your phone locked in your pocket. This means, next time you do your grocery shopping, you could receive a notification about a discount on avocados, just the second you stand in front of them in your local shop, and all this without draining your battery.
Altogether, beacons enable high precision location awareness, both while using your phone and importantly also in the background, without draining your battery. This can be utilised for various so-called hyperlocal or proximity applications that we will explore in the second instalment of this blog series.