April 13, 2017

What Are Beacons and How Do They Work

Technology can turn something we’ve come to known on its head without changing its core premise. Smartwatches are a good example. Sure, Pebble and other smart timepieces of the first wave might have looked like toys, but last year’s products from Motorola and other tech companies can be confused for a real chronometer; they look like one, tell time in the same way, but also offer a range of other features backed up by app solutions.

Beacons are at least as old watches: eye-catching constructions that offer information and navigation on land and at sea (the most common example is probably a lighthouse). Nevertheless, the newly developed beacon technology is bringing new context to an old word. If today you ask somebody what a beacon is, chances are they will tell you something like this: it is a small device that allows you to create contextual experiences near or in an area where it’s installed.

How Beacon Technology Works

Beacons are small computers, roughly the size of a standard Wi-Fi router. As part of indoor positioning systems, beacons use proximity technology to detect human presence nearby and trigger pre-set actions to deliver informational, contextual, and personalised experiences.

When a user walks past an area where an indoor positioning system is set up, a beacon sends a code with a message to their mobile device. Here app solutions come forth: this coded message, which is shown in a form of a notification, can only be viewed with a mobile app (third party or brand mobile app).

In the beacon industry, such a mobile app is regarded to as an iBeacon app, an Eddystone app, or an indoor navigation app. Put simply, it’s a mobile application that supports beacon technology and is installed on a mobile operating system supporting one of the beacon standards. Apple smartphones with iOS 7 and higher support the iBeacon standard, smartphones on Android 4 and up use the Eddystone standard. Hence the Eddystone and iBeacon app; “indoor navigation app is just a more general term.

Users receive coded messages from beacons via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) — a power-efficient bluetooth technology developed for Internet of Things applications and devices. Moreover, an app doesn’t even have to be running to be awakened by the beacon signal.

Thus, in order to use beacons one will need:

  • At least one beacon device
  • A mobile app (could be a third-party app)
  • The user’s permission

On the latter: one of the major differences between beacons and RFID (radio-frequency identification) is that beacon technology allows for a more private user experience, as it works only if paired with a mobile app — users stay in complete control and have the option of opting out.

Types of Beacons

The concept of an indoor positioning system that delivers contextual experiences emerged in 2013, after Apple introduced the iBeacon technology and communication standard. Since then, app development frameworks started accounting for the new technology as more and more beacon devices were being developed.

Today, there are different types of beacons. Their types are mostly defined by size, battery life, and resistance to exogenous factors:

  • Standard beacons (devices the size of a common Wi-Fi router or smaller)
  • Small beacons (portable but similarly effective beacons the size of a credit card or a big sticker)
  • USB beacons (small, portable, quick to deploy)
  • Parent beacons (track other beacons, gather data and store it in cloud, and more)
  • Special beacons, including devices resistant to exogenous factors (dust, water, shattering, antistatic and UV) and video beacons — USB beacons that are plugged into back of a screen to deliver visual information (for example, a user approaches a screen in a restaurant, and it displays personalised offers)

In 2017, beacons can still be considered as the latest technology, so new devices will definitely see the light of day in the following years.

In the next post, we will explore how businesses benefit from beacons, what industries bet heavily on beacons, and look at how companies already use this simple but effective technology.

If your business cannot afford to postpone a beacon solution any longer, do not hesitate and get in touch with us.