Beacons are gaining momentum as a new buzzword in the tech community. Chances are that you’ve heard of them, but you might not be entirely sure what they can do.

What is a beacon?

At a low level, beacons are small, inexpensive Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) transmitters used to determine the proximity of nearby devices. They work by continuously emitting a Bluetooth signal containing a UUID, major number, minor number, Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI), and TX Power that are used to identify the beacon and calculate its relative proximity. Acting alone beacons are useless, but when a BLE ready device picks up the signals they become really powerful. Instead of location in terms of GPS coordinates, you determine the location of a device within a limited range of a beacon (which can be in the 70+ meters range depending on the device). For example you can determine that someone with an iPhone just walked right next to a particular beacon, and since you know where the beacon is located you know the approximate location of the person.

Currently the Apple iBeacon specification holds most of the beacon market largely because there are more iOS devices than Android devices with BLE support. iOS devices had full iBeacon support starting with iOS 7 which now installed on 97% of all iOS devices. Android didn’t add support for detecting iBeacons until Android 4.4 KitKat which is installed on 58% of Android devices and didn’t add the ability to use your device as a beacon until the recent December 19, 2014 release of Android 5.0 Lollipop which is only on 2% of Android devices.

Apple owns the iBeacon specification and allows different vendors to manufacture the beacon hardware under that specification. The result of this is that beacons can come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. A few vendor examples are Estimote, Gimbal, GELO, and Blue Cats. Android alternatives do exist using the AltBeacon specification, but as previously stated Android still has some catching up to do. If you’re interested Android beacon development you can see more about what Samsung is doing with them. But for the rest of the article we’ll be talking about iBeacons.

What are some use cases for beacons?

The retail industry is one of the main places beacons are currently picking up steam. Using beacons, stores can send targeted notifications to customers based their location and even how long they’ve been in a particular section of the store. For example if you went to a department store and spent five minutes in the shoe section, a notification with current shoe promotions could be sent to your phone while you’re there. Macys has already started doing just this by allowing users of their mobile app to opt-in to these notifications.

Fortunately retailers can’t spam the phones of just anyone walking through their stores. Taking advantage of these services requires user buy in - by downloading the app, having Bluetooth enabled, and actually opting in to notifications. But with consumers becoming increasingly privacy aware it can be a tough sell to convince them to sign up for location based advertisements. It’s up to businesses to convince their customers that they will benefit from using these services. Since beacon technology is still really new, it’s yet to be seen how well it will catch on with consumers in the long run.

Luckily not all beacon apps are built to serve advertisements. One of the main things they allow us to do is track indoor location. GPS can navigate us from building to building but until now there wasn’t a cheap, reliable way to track location inside a building. The retail industry is using indoor location to help navigate customers to particular products, but this is quickly catching on in other markets as well. Here are a few examples.

  • Target rolled out a new app in time for Black Friday 2014 to help navigate customers to the products they were interested in.
  • Bonaroo 8 had an iBeacon enabled app that collected statistics on their concert goers habits. Bonarro was not only able to send notifications to concert goers phones, but also was able to track data on those users entire concert experience - which stages they went too, for how long, etc.
  • The MLB placed iBeacons around most of its stadiums to allow fans using the iOS app to check in, get directions to their seats, etc.

Although a lot of the beacon buzz currently revolves around businesses, there are plenty of non-commercial use cases for them as well.

  • Beacons can be used to improve apps you are already using. You could set an alarm clock to go off only if you are in fact still in your bedroom. Or have your pill reminder only remind you when you are actually near your pills (which PillAware is already doing).
  • Home automation is another market with great potential in the beacon space. Wouldn’t it be nice if the lights turned on when you entered a room or other electronics turned off when you left? Two apps already in this space are The Beecon App and airfy Beacon which let you configure and control your smart home environment. Although smart homes sound cool there are significant up front costs that may initially slow down its adoption. It’s easy to convince people to download and use an app, but in order for home automation to work users also have to invest in iBeacons and other smart enabled products such as light bulbs (Phillips HUE) and thermostats (Nest).
  • Beacons can be used to help find personal belongings. Lost keys become a thing of the past simply by attaching a beacon to them. The next time your keys go missing simply pull out your phone (or borrow a friend’s if you lost that too) and it can help direct you to the keys’ location. You could do this with any number of items you may wish to locate in the future - purses, wallets, suitcases, etc. Beacons help us find things we lose at home but what happens if you lose your stuff somewhere out of range of your beacons? There are a couple of solutions to this problem. One way to combat this is to receive a notification any time the item goes out of range of your phone. The other solution that apps like Tile and TinTag are working on is to create a network of phones that can help locate your items for you. The app that you use to locate your items will also look for other peoples’ items in the background. If you leave your wallet at the ballpark and someone running the app walks by it, you’ll get a notification with its current location. As more people start using these apps and the network for locating your stuff becomes more powerful the better the experience will be for everyone.

Using Beacons without apps

Most of the examples we’ve talked about so far have the requirement of creating and downloading a mobile app. What if your customers don’t want to download an app? What if they don’t even have a smartphone - yes, these people do still exist. Are there ways of creating meaningful beacon experiences for these situations? Absolutely.

Just because someone doesn’t use your mobile app doesn’t mean you can’t gather meaningful data. Imagine adding beacons to all the shopping carts in a grocery store. This would allow you to track anonymous statistics on how long people spend in the store, how long they wait in line to check out, what areas of the store customers spend the most time in, and any other scenario you can think up. Using these statistics store owners may realize it’s time to hire more cashiers or gain insight on how to rearrange products to better serve customers.

Here at Make and Build we started an internal R&D project, named Courier, to create a beacon experience that doesn’t require a mobile app. We’re working on a future blog post that dives in to these details so be on the look out for that. But in the meantime we hope to have given you a good idea of many of the different ways you can start to implement beacon technology in your own projects.