When it comes to technology, there’s a lot that we interact with each day that we don’t even question: lightbulbs turning on at the flip of a switch, a car turning on, a WiFi signal instantly enabling internet browsing. Many of these simple things are becoming connected and the technology that’s making that happen is called Bluetooth Beacons..
Some of the simplest devices out there are called Bluetooth beacons and combined with other technologies, they can solve a great many problems for users whether they’re serving customers in the industries of travel, hospitality, transportation, news, retail, or otherwise. We’ll go over some of the beacon technology basics in this article and cover everything from what they are, how they differ from GPS, and how they can be used in conjunction with great mobile apps to improve the overall user experiences.
What is Beacon technology and how does it work?
Think of the phrase “beacon of light.” That’s kind of what a beacon is, from a technology standpoint–but instead of a lighthouse emitting light into the sea, it’s a small Bluetooth radio transmitter.
Each beacon has a Unique ID made of numbers and letters and that identifying information is broadcasted by Bluetooth several times each second. If you’ve never seen a beacon before, they’re quite simple devices and only consist of three parts: batteries, a central processing unit (CPU), and the radio. All beacons are BLE which stands for Bluetooth low energy (you may have also seen it called “BTLE”). This is especially important because the use of less energy means the ability for the beacons to be actively used for longer periods of time, often years without changing the battery. If you hear BLE with regards to Bluetooth beacons, know that all Bluetooth related beacons are technically considered low energy beacons.
Some beacons have more parts than others but you don’t need to be fancier than that to have a functioning device. The Unique ID gets broadcast to a receiver (like a phone) and software on that receiver (such as an app) can deliver content tailored to that beacon. For example, if a store was advertising specific sales from one part of the store they could alter the content to be specific to that part of the store. For example, if a popular retailer installed beacons at the entrance of their store, they could showcase relevant sales information for a particular season; the Unique ID is transmitted from the beacon wouldn’t change, but the content that the app delivers (based on the season) would.
There are many different types of Bluetooth beacons out there but the most popular configurations are either iBeacons or Eddystone beacons. iBeacon was created by Apple and Eddystone by Google. Beyond who makes the beacons, the main differentiator is the Unique IDs that are transmitted and how their security features work. iBeacon’s Unique ID has one advertising packet that contains three different components and Eddystone beacons have several different kinds of advertising packets that can cycle to provide more security.
What’s the difference between beacons and GPS?
Once you know how a beacon works, you may think that it’s somewhat similar to GPS and when it comes to sending out signals, they’re a bit similar but not quite the same. GPS stands for Global Positioning System and the system is composed of three parts: satellites, a ground station, and receivers. There are actually 30 satellites up in space orbiting the Earth as we speak (yes, right now). A receiver can be anything from a car to a phone–anything that receives the signal that is being sent from the satellite. In order to track your location, the receiver uses signals from several satellites to calculate the distances from itself to those satellites, and thus pinpoint where you are.
When it comes to beacons though, that much work doesn’t go into it. We mentioned earlier that beacons were a much simpler technology, and they are. Unlike satellites, beacons aren’t broadcasting their location to a ton of satellites, they’re only broadcasting their location to the device that is receiving their identity, or that Unique ID code we mentioned. GPS can position you anywhere in the world and it typically doesn’t work well indoors. GPS also requires at least three satellites to give you a location and often does so to an accuracy of 1-50 meters. Beacons, on the other hand, can work indoors or outdoors, they can get to a finer accuracy.
How do I know if I need GPS or beacons?
Each of these technologies serves a purpose but depending on the project, one may be better than another and sometimes you may want both When it comes down to it, GPS informs apps of longitude and latitude points. Beacons, however, are able to be customized at a much more granular level and allow a company to more strategically target how their users are receiving and digesting information. Beacons also give more control over the company that installs them. Most Bluetooth beacons can last up to two years without being replaced, but are easily accessible should any changes or testing need to occur.
Where do mobile apps come in?
Here is the part of the equation that we as users don’t often think about. If you’ve ever explored the “Settings” in your mobile phone, then you know you have the option to have your Bluetooth set to either “On” or “Off.” When your Bluetooth is set to “On,” then your device can receive broadcasted messages from other devices and beacons, in this case.
When your Bluetooth setting is “On,” then whenever you’re within broadcasting distance of a beacon, your apps can receive the beacon’s Unique ID. For those with privacy concerns, it’s important to know that beacons don’t track you, all they do is send signals from one point to another (kind of like two tin cans with string tied between them, but with a bit more sophistication). In fact, if you’re an iPhone or Android user, chances are that you’re already impacted by beacons on a daily basis whenever you’re interacting with your phone. For example, say you open your Starbucks app to buy your morning coffee ahead of time on the way to the shop, the beacon’s location is detected by your phone and now the app will know to serve you up any new seasonal offers or deals being promoted. Imagine if you had to go to the homepage of the app each time you wanted to find a great new morning deal. That would be such a hassle! But that’s just one of the ways that beacons make for a positive, more tailored user experience.
Other instances where beacons are used:
Imagine if you could find your way throughout a store based on guidance coming from an app, that knows where you are in relation to the types of products you’re likely to buy. This sort of technology has been around for years (we built one of the first indoor navigation apps for Macy’s) and with beacon technology, this sort of experience is even easier. Stores like Target and others are incorporating beacon technology to show shoppers about the deals nearby and to be even more connected to their consumers throughout the shopping experience. Baseball stadiums are using beacons to get you to your seat or to a hotdog. American Eagle stores use beacons to give shoppers updates on discounts, rewards based on their locations, and other product recommendations.
Because GPS is only accurate to a certain extent, those with visual impairments can benefit from even more precise micro-navigation which can be enhanced with beacons. We worked with the Perkins School for the Blind to create an app called BlindWays, which helps the visually impaired confidently navigate public transportation. The team also paired up with the MBTA to integrate beacon technology with the app so that users have enough more insight as to how near or far away from a stop they are. Other helpful information to know besides how far away a bus stop is, would be when the bus will arrive. Beacons aren’t constrained to apps but can work with other technologies, too. The MTA trains in the New York City subway use beacons to communicate a broadcast signal between the train and the station’s platform to alert commuters of when their train will arrive.
Apps can connect with beacons to receive news that is applicable to them based on the location of their users. When a user walks by a location, a beacon transmits a signal to the phone and the app knows to deliver an update of news applicable to that location for the time they’re there; once they leave the area and the signal from the beacon is no longer detected, the app no longer displays that news. This is called geo-fencing and can be used with a combination of both beacons and GPS. This type of beacon is especially helpful for those hoping to keep up to date on current events but also has the ability to be utilized by companies and apps that utilize emergency alerts. For example, RapidSOS is using Bluetooth beacons to ensure that in an emergency, your location can be more accurately detected.
Resorts and restaurants can use beacons to let their patrons know about what’s happening around them, from when the turn-down service arrives, to restaurants nearby that cater to their specific dietary restrictions. Starwood Hotels recently completed a trial using beacons to help concierge connect with customers for a faster check-in process, give insight for housekeeping as to whether or not guests were still in the room, and even tested a method for guests entering their rooms without a key.
There are airlines and airports that are working towards using beacons for passengers in lines at security to notify which airlines have passengers that will run late for their flights. But beyond being used for function and utility, Virgin Atlantic uses beacon technology in London’s Heathrow airport that notifies premium passengers visiting their lounges about their electronic boarding passes and what in-flight entertainment awaits them. More and more companies are beginning to think about beacons through the lens of the user experience and are considering what how beacons can provide extra delight and surprise within their products.
What makes beacons compelling?
Fortunately, tech is moving the world forward in several innovative ways and Bluetooth beacon technology demonstrates that not all innovative technology needs to be extremely complex in order to make a large difference for a company’s target audience. In the end, what beacons do best is to help a company find new and exciting ways to communicate with their users in a strategic, targeted way. If you’re considering utilizing beacons together with your mobile app in a way creates a great user experience, get in touch!
This content was originally authored by Allison Grinberg-Funes.