Beacon

Beacon is a technology based on the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmission principle. It enables automated, energy-saving communication between transmitters (so-called beacons) and receivers (e. g. smartphones, tablets or Smart Watches) so that relevant content can be called up and made available by the receiver based on its local geodata. Application scenarios are mobile shopping, geo-based and Bluetooth marketing as well as various applications in the areas of mixed reality and augmented reality.

General Information[edit]

BLE technology was introduced by Nokia in 2006. For transmitting energy in one direction (the receiver’s), BLE technology uses much less energy than conventional Bluetooth devices. A Beacon is usually equipped with a battery that ensures operation for about three years. The production of the Beacon modules is between 60 and 80% cheaper than with Bluetooth.[1] In the meantime, there are numerous companies that have specialized in the production of beacon signal heads.

The reason why Beacons became accessible to the general public relatively quickly was due to Apple. The company unveiled its proprietary iBeacon framework in 2013, and introduced it to the market through a licensing process. Manufacturers and developers wishing to use Beacon technology must first apply for a license from Apple.[2] They can then use the SDK (Software Development Kit) and various APIs and program libraries to design custom use cases and provide users with information at the point of interest. Devices with newer operating systems usually support Beacon technology.

Operating principle[edit]

The Beacon technology is based on relatively small transmitters that transmit Bluetooth signals at regular intervals in their surroundings. They are not designed as receivers, but are limited to acting as an impulse for the receiver device. Beacons remain passive and only send data necessary for identification and location. The signals sent at short intervals create a signal region. When a device enters or is close to this region, the device registers contact with the transducers and can use this information in various ways.

Beacons transmit three states of information:[3]

  • A Universally Unique Identifier (UUID) is used to send unique information to a distributed system made up of multiple components. Each Beacon has its own UUID. The string of numbers and letters is 16 bytes in size.
  • The major value has the function of defining signal regions or use cases. A branch office in Munich would send a different major value than one in Hamburg.
  • The minor value can be used to determine further subregions or use cases. For example, individual departments within a signalling region such as clothing, shoes or household goods.


Major and Minor values are 2 bytes each. A mobile app is installed on the end device that processes these signals. The app identifies the signal transmitter (s) and measures the distances between transmitters and receivers in the room. At least four beacons must be installed in order for this to be accurate enough in a three-dimensional space. Similar to GPS systems, the distances between the units are measured according to the Laterations principle, with the difference that the data transmission is designed for ta close-up range.

The result are so-called geofences. Data such as latitude, longitude and a radius can be used to define flexible regions that can be changed again and again by the position of the beacons. A distinction is made between Immidiate (less than 50 cm), Near (up to three meters), Far (more than ten meters) and Unknown. Particularly powerful beacons can transmit their signals within a range of up to 450 meters. However, beacons are sensitive to obstacles such as people, walls or furnishings - the range is shortened in these cases.

As soon as the relatively precise positions have been determined by the receiver devices, a downstream process can be started. For example, starting an app for mobile payment applications, or delivering relevant content to a specific geopoint in the store to offer customers suitable products. Push messages or social media applications are also possible. Which tasks or processes are started by sender-receiver communication depends on the respective use case.

Practical use[edit]

A selection of possible use cases:

  • Mobile shopping: In stores, product information can be displayed in different departments - for example, to offer users suitable garments if they are interested in a particular item of clothing. Users can also be guided through various offers in the portfolio
  • Mobile Payment: At the point of sale, users can make cashless payments with very little interaction. All they need to do is to be near a terminal with the end device.
  • Navigation: In various buildings such as museums, bidding facilities, public institutions, railway stations, airports or sports stadiums, Beacons can help navigate through the buildings.
  • Context-relevant content: Depending on the application scenario, Beacons and a receiver device can be used to display certain relevant content, which can also be linked to mobile shopping, navigation or home automation.[4]

In practice, developers should make sure that the transferred Beacon data is not directly visible to hackers or competitors. The so-called spoofing can be secured by various means to prevent the Beacon-Use-Case from being simply copied by competitors.

Significance for programming[edit]

In Germany, there is still a relatively low acceptance of beacons. Whether the technology will catch on is not yet clear. There are also competing technologies such as NFC, Eddystone from Google or RFID chips, each of which enables different use cases - but with chips that can also receive signals, the production costs are correspondingly higher. It is quite possible that beacons are only an intermediate step in the development process and may be replaced by applications from Smart Objects, Internet of Things or Augmented Reality.

Nevertheless, beacons are excellently suited for use in specific use cases such as navigation or context-relevant content due to their energy and cost characteristics.6] In addition, beacons offer different possibilities to measure the consumer's usage and buying behavior. In-store tracking, customer journey tracking or interaction in different channels can be observed in order to realize a customized customer approach and to get to know the users better.7] The decisive factor is, of course, the willingness of users to release their data by using appropriate apps and consents. If the data is only used for advertising and sales, this willingness should not be too high.

References[edit]

  1. What is iBeacon? A guide to beacons ibeacon.com. Accessed on 12/02/2015
  2. Getting Started with iBeacon developer.apple.com. Accessed on 12/02/2015