iBeacon and Bluetooth LE: Markers for the Digital Age

Beacons are just a pile of rocks…

Guest Post: Richard Grundy, CTO, Techdept

So you may well have heard that beacons (in their many formats) are the marketing gold of the digital age.

What many will not tell you is that when you get down to the basics beacons are simply the modern digital equivalent of the most ancient of navigation aids: stone cairns (or to put it another way, a pile of rocks).

The building of cairns goes back to prehistory, and their function is basic yet essential: mark this position on the globe for others to know that it has some meaning. This meaning ranged from burial sites to simple route markers.

And therein lies the gold. Beacons are simple markers for a digital age.

So now we have established that beacons are just a piles of rocks, why are they so important? What makes them so special?

It is because, like their real life counterparts, the power lies in how you use them and not in their basic function.

Key Number One: iBeacon and Micro-location

As singular items, beacons mark one spot. By using a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signal the distance from each beacon can be estimated using received signal strength indicators (RSSI).

Some stone cairns are used in more advanced ways and many have become what hikers will know as trig points. If you can see three cairns (or other landscape markers) and you know their position on a map, you can pinpoint your own position using compass measurements and simple trigonometry (hence trig points).

Beacons can be used in just the same way but the mathematics are slightly different. Rather than know the exact direction of the beacon, mobile applications can measure the signal strength of three or more known beacons and estimate their distance. Using these distances and a knowledge of the beacon positions the mobile device’s location can then be accurately calculated to within a few centimetres.

Key Number Two: iBeacon and Targeted Information

With internet access mobile applications can make use of their exact location to obtain highly specific information.

And so we are looking at a revolution similar to the civilian adoption of GPS but this time it will be a much finer grained indoor location.

So it is up to the developers to make use of this information in order to provide a layer of services which engage the user and enable ground breaking interactions in retail, art spaces, workplaces and other environments. You can read some ideas on applications from my business partner Dan Kirby in a previous blog post.

Enabling Factor: Deep Device Integration

To be frank, all of this technology is not new. Beacon tech has been around for almost 10 years but the revolution is starting now thanks to its integration into the two most popular mobile operating systems and their handsets: Android (Google) and iOS (Apple).

The operating system (core software which runs the phone) allows applications to register interest in certain Beacon identifiers. These are long unique combinations of letters and numbers which every beacon has.

There is a main identifier (UUID) followed by a “major” and “minor” number. So if you have a group of beacons with the same main identifier your app can tell the phone to keep looking for that identifier even when the application is closed. When the phone detects a beacon it will check the list of UUIDs it has and when a matching one is found it will start the appropriate application and let it know that one or more of the beacons are now in range.

Your app can now be much more proactive. If a person walks into your premises you can send them a message about today’s great offers, or tell them about the products they are standing next to or let them pay for services and products directly through your app. The possibilities are vast.

Time for some Imagination

The final point I want to make is this: we all need to stop thinking about beacons in simple terms. As developers, technologists and marketers we need to think of unconventional uses for these beacons.

What if beacons were attached to moving objects? What if beacons were placed on people? What if we took footfall measurements using micro-location of actual customers? How about flying beacons?

Some of the most successful ideas are when a technology is misappropriated to do something it was not originally designed for: Gunpowder was originally a medicine, Duct tape was designed to protect ammunition from the weather. Now we all need to experiment with beacons to find out what amazing experiences we can create with them.

Oh and yes, beacons are also pretty good for targeted marketing on mobile devices.

Guest Author Bio:
Richard Grundy – Chief Technical Officer

I started my career as a teenager, developing software for monitoring gas compression trains on oil rigs. This funded my time at university and gave me a taste of entrepreneurship. After qualifying as a chemical process engineer I spent the next few years travelling the world, working in the oil industry.

In 1999 I became involved in a complex start up project aiming to relocate a refinery from Alaska to Papua New Guinea. The following years were full of interesting experiences including a stint working alongside Enron Corp, learning a lot about the realities of corporate behaviour.

Throughout my career the internet had played a large part, and I developed my technical skills continuously. It was in 2003 that I decided to focus my career less on chemical process engineering and more on web development and technology. I joined forces with Dan Kirby and together we founded Techdept.

I lead the technical direction of all projects, and work closely with clients in order to develop their internet and technical strategies.

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