Have you ever heard about beacons? It is a technology introduced by Apple in February 2013, as a development of Nokia’s Bluetooth Low Energy concept from 2006. It allows people to send small pieces of data to devices close to the signal transmitters. Since 2013 it’s becoming more and more popular, gradually replacing NFC [a form of wireless communication between devices, like smartphones or tablets]. If you want to know 7 most important things about beacons, read my article. I’ll introduce you to that up-to-date way to use it on daily basis.
1.How do beacons work?
As I mentioned, beacons technology is based on the process of sending data between a transmitter and a smartphone or a tablet with an installed app that enables receiving signals. Beacons can be compared to lighthouses, but instead of sending light they send radio waves to all available receivers nearby. They are small computers charged by a coin battery, equipped with an accelerometer and a temperature sensor. When users walk next to a beacon device, their smartphones get notifications personalized by beacon’s owner. All of this is possible thanks to the Bluetooth 4.0 standard, which allows to pair tools in Bluetooth Low Energy mode. This system allows sending only small data pieces and has some limits eg. you can’t transfer music or video material. Because beacons can recognize their proximity to nearby devices, they can adjust messages to the location of signal receiver. Beacons’ producers claim that their devices have a contact range up to 70 m, but because the signal can be absorbed or diffracted even by human body, we should assume that their real reach is approximately 40-50 meters.
2.How are beacons different from NFC?
First impression you may get after being introduced to the beacon technology is its similarity to NFC. In fact, they have similar purpose but on a different scale. First of all, BLE and NFC have a different range – while beacons can broadcast signals within 70 m radius, NFC spreads them up to 20 cm, with the optimal range of 4 cm. This difference results in various uses for both technologies. NFC is suitable for a person-to-person secure delivery of information, such as public transport cards, mobile phone payments and access cards, while BLE is best for settings where user will be passively notified of information or offers in the nearest area e.g. public venues or during various events.
3.What are the different kinds of beacons?
By beacon we can mean the device sending messages, or the messages themselves. To broadcast these messages we need beacon protocols that are standard for Bluetooth Low Energy communication. Protocols assure different structure of data packet and are compatible with iOS, Android or both. Unfortunately, there is still no full support for Windows Phone, although beacons’ producers claim that they have Windows Phone SDK in the future plans. In 2013, Apple introduced iBeacon protocol, however nowadays they never focus on promoting the new product.
Two years later, in July 2015, Google brought their own beacon profile – Eddystone.
It seems to be more flexible and open to the technology than the rival product from Apple. First of all while iBeacon works with iOS devices only, Eddystone allows to connect with both iOS and Android smartphones. Moreover it’s open source, available on GitHub under the Apache v2.0 license, so it’s specifications are open for everyone. Important difference between this two products are also types of data packets that they broadcast and reactions that the data trigger.
iBeacons support two basic interactions: monitoring and ranging. Monitoring recognizes entries/exits within a signal area. An area is set with one or more beacon devices. Monitoring works even if an app is killed, but requires user’s permission to Access Your Location Even When You Are Not Using the App. Good example of this system’s utilization can be a museum sending notifications to the visitors when they enter or exit the exhibition. Second mode – ranging – triggers actions only if an app is open in the foreground, based on the proximity to a device. In this case, to continue with the museum example, if you come closer to a painting, a beacon can trigger a notification about specific work of art.
Similar packet type is Google’s Eddystone UID. An app installed on the device uses the identifier to generate desired action. The second packet is a completely new thing and it supports interactions that iBeacons couldn’t give us so far. Eddystone-URL is named by Google as the backbone of the Physical Web as it opens URL (it doesn’t need an app!) directly in a browser. Operating with Eddystone you can also manage your beacons’ fleet. The Eddystone-TLM broadcast type in combination with the Proximity Beacon API ensure that your device works well.
4. How do beacons look?
There are few types of beacon transmiters and depending on the producer they all look different, so everyone can find something suitable for his or her needs. Eg. Estimote sells devices which look like pastel-color, polyhedral stones, while Kontakt.io produces items similar to the keys of a computer keyboard. But all beacons have one thing in common: they are rather small and you can easily fit them in your hand. Initially, they were created to be stuck to a wall or other immovable objects, but now you can order beacons in the form of tiny stickers. They’re much thinner and smaller than classic devices and can be attached to whatever you want, even to objects that may be in motion. Stickers assure the same features as the bigger beacons (ARM processor, memory, radio signal transmitter etc.) but have shorter range – only up to 7 meters. Also the battery life expectancy is various for both kinds. Depending on, among other things, power modes and environmental effects, stickers can work up to one year, while bigger beacons are able to transmit signal from 3 to even 5 years.
5. What devices are compatible with beacons?
Technically, all devices supporting Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth smart) are
able to receive beacons’ signal. You can look into the full list of devices which contains e.g. Apple products from iPhone 4S upwards and Android 4.3+ tools. Still, there is no full support for Windows Phone. However, since Bluetooth Smart support has been introduced in Windows Phone 8.1 it is possible to work on location-aware apps, but – as I mentioned – without any official devkit.
6. What opportunities do beacons give you?
Beacons can be comprehensively used. But the most popular way that people use beacons for is personalized conversation with customers when they are in the area nearest to their business location. It allows us to customize messages sent to the users and gain a completely new group of customers due to the better understanding of their behaviour.
Most representative example of using beacons’ technology is applying them to announce new products or promotional sets. You run a shoe shop and want to inform your regular customers about a summer sale? Just put a beacon device in your place and let it send messages to customers who walk into or nearby the shop. You add a new shoe model to your offer and a potential buyer seems to be interested? Stick a beacon transmitter to that pair and sent the customer details of the product if he visits your shop and stands next to the product for a longer while.
Beacons fit a lot of various industries – it’s not only retail where you can use the power of contextually relevant notifications. It works also for businesses related with transport and logistics, traveling, healthcare or banking.
By using beacons you can improve the schedule of deliveries and limit queues in front of your distribution centers. Your driver is delayed because of a traffic jam? With beacons you can make your warehouse more efficient – just check which ramps are currently occupied and inform the driver which are ready to use right now.
In modern hospitals, the personnel uses devices like tablets to get easy access to patient’s health report. Doctors receive them immediately when they walk into the patient’s room which decreases the amount of paperwork and simplifies the distribution of medical reports and test results.
If your business area is related to the travel industry, you can use beacons to identify your high value passengers and prompt real-time messages about boarding time, departure time and gate number. Moreover, you can provide the information regarding which luggage carousel arriving passengers’ baggage will come out on and what is the expected waiting time.
If you need different ideas how to use them, try brainstorming.
7. What could be the problems?
Beacon based messages are a great opportunity but, as almost every technological novelty, they also face some problems. First of all, many users are unfamiliar with beacons and they are not prepared for beacon-based experience. Latest reports* showed that almost 70% of consumers in US don’t know what a beacon is, and those statistics are even worse in Europe.
Lack of awareness entails lack of trust. Because customers don’t know a technology, they can be afraid of what kind of information the beacons gather about them and how a beacon’s owner will later use that data. Also, messages send to a user and regarding his personal preferences can make some people feel uncomfortably exposed, especially if beacons’ marketing is run with no sense of User Experience and turns out to be a spam notifications hell.
What’s more, technical limitation related to the usage of Bluetooth can be a barrier as well. Although it’s expected that by 2018 almost 90% of devices will support the BLE technology, the problem is the low percent of users that actually use it. In US only 40% of device owners declare to have Bluetooth enabled, while that number goes as low as about 15-20% in Eastern Europe and Russia. Moreover a lot of users still believe that leaving Bluetooth on for a long time can strongly drain the battery of the device, like it tended to be the case just a few years ago.
Despite these cons one thing’s for sure – by introducing a digital extension into the physical world, beacons provide completely new ways of interacting with customers. They give business owners a wide range of opportunities, and since they don’t need to be connected to the Internet you can use them almost anywhere you want. So what are you waiting for? Think about your strategy and choose devices that fit your customer’s needs best! And remember to keep your bluetooth on for new possibilities!