What are beacons?
Beacons are small wireless devices that broadcast signals using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), or Bluetooth SMART technology. Mobile apps on compatible devices are able to listen for signals from beacons placed in the physical world and then trigger an experience via the app. By experiences we mean things like sending a notification, coupon, video, form, URL or other forms of media that are relevant to a person's exact location.
Above: Estimote beacon curtousy of estimote.com
Beacon enabled apps are notified when the device enters or exits the range of a beacon, and are also able to monitor the distance from the beacon as it changes, often referred to as 'ranging'. This is in contrast to GPS, which uses latitude and longitude to define a devices location.
We don't always have to trigger an experience when a device enters or exits the range of a beacon, in some instances we may just like to collect data for the purposes of generating real world analytics and insights.
The range of a beacon varies depending on the manufacturer, hardware settings and physical surroundings, but can typically be configured anywhere from 5 centimeters to 50 meters, creating a wide range of use cases. Each beacon broadcasts a set of unique IDs which means that a mobile app can tell them apart from each other. You will learn more about these IDs in Chapter 4.
Beacons come in many different form factors and can cost anywhere from $1-50 USD. They are most often powered by a coin cell or AA battery. Several beacon manufacturers claim that their beacons can last up to 3 years on a single lithium battery, however this is dependant on the power source, power settings and advertising interval of the beacon. Typically a beacon is comprised of a surrounding case, battery, processor chip and Bluetooth radio. Some beacons contain additional sensors such as an accelerometer and heat sensor.
What is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)?
BLE or Bluetooth Smart is an intelligent and power friendly version of Bluetooth wireless technology and exchanges data over short distances using radio transmissions. The power of BLE is in its ability to work with an app on a smartphone, tablet or any other compatible mobile device. The technology itself is simple, secure and featured in billions of devices ranging from mobile phones and computers to medical devices and home entertainment products. It is intended to replace the cables that connect devices, while maintaining high levels of security. It is highly likely that BLE will be one of the key technologies behind the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) - a network of physical objects that can exchange data via the existing Internet infrastructure.
What is iBeacon?
iBeacon is simply Apple's trademarked term for it's location aware system that uses beacons to notify nearby iOS 7 or 8+ devices of their presence. In order to use the term iBeacon, hardware manufacturers must enroll to become an iBeacon Licensee and use the iBeacon Proximity Specification. This is Apple's way of ensuring a reliable and consistent experience for its customers. It's important to note that all recent Android, Windows and Blackberry devices support BLE too. You can find a full list of supported devices on the Bluetooth website.
What are the benefits of using beacon technology?
- High degree of accuracy
Beacon technology allows a mobile device to understand it's exact position, even indoors where smartphones are typically not able to pick up GPS signals from satellites. This means beacon technology offers a high level of accuracy when compared to other geo-location technologies.
- Low impact on battery life
Bluetooth technology is designed to have very low power consumption, which means that beacon powered apps have minimal impact on the devices battery life. GPS on the other hand, demands a significant amount of power to run and therefore significantly impacts battery life when in use.
- App engagement / wake-up
Mobile devices automatically wake-up when they come within ranges of beacons, even if the mobile app that is listening is fully closed. This unique feature of beacons offers a powerful way to drive engagement with your mobile app at exactly the right time and place. It's also a great to drive repeat usage of your app.
- No Internet connection required
Mobile apps can pick up beacon signals without an Internet connection and store data locally on the device. This means beacons are a great proximity trigger in areas where a stable Internet connection is not available. It's worth noting that typically an Internet connection is required to trigger content such as push notifications. However, there are ways around this such as developing local notifications and caching content within the app. It is technically possible to run an entire beacon experience without an Internet connection.
- Low cost of entry
Setting up and taking advantage of a beacon network is relatively low cost when compared to other technologies such as Wi-Fi. Unless you are deploying a large network of beacons, most of the costs are likely to be associated with the development of a beacon enabled mobile app. Unless of course you already have one, in which case the barriers to entry are even lower.
What do you need to use beacon technology?
- Beacon enabled mobile app
In order to use beacon technology you need to have a beacon enabled mobile app. Existing apps need to be updated to be beacon enabled, however this is typically a very straightforward process for an app developer. Many beacon software platforms, including Lighthouse, provide a software development kit (SDK) that can be installed to make an existing app compatible with iBeacon and beacons.
If you don't have your own app and are not planning on building one, there are other alternatives you can consider. You may like to partner with a company who already has a suitable mobile app to deliver your content. You can also use Apple Passbook or Android PassWallet to deliver coupons and loyalty offers based on proximity to a beacon. The Passbook app is available on all iOS 6+ devices. Here's a short summary of how it works:
- Promote an offer or loyalty card through your existing marketing channels (email, SMS, website, barcode, QR code etc.) using a customized link that adds the Pass (offer) to Passbook.
- If you have beacons deployed you can present the pass or offer on the device lock screen when a users enters the range of one of your beacons. Examples include an airline presenting a boarding pass when you arrive at the airport or Starbucks presenting a loyalty pass when you're close to a Starbucks outlet.
- Passes can also be updated remotely with new information, offers or coupons.
Tip: With the recent launch of Apple Pay expect to see the use of Passbook increase as iOS users store their credit cards in Passbook and use their mobile devices to make mobile payments both online and in-store.
Related blog post: iBeacon, no app.
- Network of deployed beacons
You will also need to purchase and deploy beacons to one or multiple physical locations. Once deployed, you'll need to ensure that your mobile app is listening for the unique ID's (UUID's) of the beacons in your network.
- Bluetooth switched on and relevant permissions
In addition to Bluetooth being switched on at the device level, there are a two app level permissions required to use beacon technology. These are;
- Push notifications
- Location services
When asking for these permissions from users make sure you provide context and clearly explain the value exchange.
- Management platform
Once you've deployed beacons and have an app that is listening for them, you'll need an easy way to manage content and assess performance of your beacon program. That's where we can help. Lighthouse allows you to set up locations and zones, manage content, automate processes and view detailed analytics. Watch a video demonstration of the Lighthouse management platform to learn more.