iBeacon Buffet: The Next Generation of Beacons Is Better (And Harder) Than the Last

Beacons just keep getting better. And the choices more difficult.

With manufacturers creating a new generation of the little devices it isn’t just battery life or reliable firmware you need to think about – but also choices about security, vendor lock-in, or concurrent technologies.

Even the definitions have shifted – you see a lot less talk about iBeacon and more references to BLE. Apple took the lion share of attention with its iBeacon specification, but as Android and other devices starting coming on board the larger industry started to understand that there wasn’t anything particularly special about an iBeacon – it was more of a branding move by Cupertino.

Apple made beacons simple. But as retailers, brands and venues have started understanding what a beacon really is,  the decision of “which beacon” has become far more complicated.

Beacons As Profound Change – And Challenge

How do you explain to a brand or retailer, for example, that even though BLE is a universal standard you still need to add a few digits to your advertising packet for a Samsung beacons, remove a few digits and change your broadcast interval for it to be an iBeacon?

It’s simple enough to say that “beacons work with all devices”, which is true – but can you avoid delivering beacons which end up being locked out by Samsung (for example) when they launch Proximity?

Regardless of the cross-platform challenges, we also saw a pronounced shift in the latter part of 2014 from “beacons as buzz” to “beacons as infrastructure” – and companies started grappling with the larger challenges of deploying, maintaining and building user experiences around beacons at a much larger scale than a few pilot stores or a museum exhibit or two.

These larger deployments and multi-year road maps are mostly happening under the radar. The conversations we have with customers, for example, have shifted from educational and pilot-focused to much larger multi-year projects with greater clarity around KPIs and a deeper awareness that beacons represent one prong in a larger strategic struggle.

We’ve said that beacons are “the gateway drug to the Internet of Things”.  Brands and venues have started grappling with the fact that while beacons make proximity possible, they also pose a larger question of how you create user experiences when everything can be digitized.

Beacons can help tell you that you’re in front of the cookie aisle. But once you’ve figured THAT out, you need to ask how the consumer got in front of the cookie aisle in the first place, where they’ll go next, and how looking at a bag of cookies changes when you can also deliver media, digital coupons, or an ability to purchase right at the shelf.

Beacons create a simple-to-understand interaction. But their implications for an always-on, digital-everywhere, contextually-relevant consumer experience drives to the heart of how we define a physical space in the first place.

5 Questions To Ask About Beacons

The number of beacon options is also expanding. And the manufacturers are moving “up the stack” – adding more and more services on top of their beacons while at the same time shifting from relatively ‘dumb’ beacons.

If you’re shifting from pilot deployments to beacons-as-infrastructure, new questions come into play:

  • How can you remotely monitor and manage a beacon, does it require a WiFi connection to do so, or does it embed management as a payload in the user’s app?
  • What specifications does the beacon broadcast for, and will it be able to simultaneously support (for example) iBeacon and Android specifications?
  • How can you create an authentication layer, do you need one, and what will the larger implications be as beacons shift into being a key part of the payments ecosystem?
  • Are the beacons secure? Do they need to be? What does security mean? What’s the difference between hijacking and spoofing?
  • What’s the vendor road map for Bluetooth 4.2?

And, in the “your guess is as good as mine” category:

  • Are the beacons future-proof against changes or innovations by Apple, Samsung, Google and other vendors?
  • Are you willing to make a bet on the Physical Web?
  • How quickly should we migrate to dual-mode BLE/NFC beacons?
  • Do your beacons work with location mapping technologies, do they need to, and can your beacon be made “self-aware”?

A Buffet of Beacons

This week felt like Christmas, and the post office must think we have a very large family. But it was boxes of beacons arriving at the front door.

Some of the latest beacons, platforms and announcements give us a hint of what’s in store for 2015:

Radius Networks RadBeacon X

Best known, perhaps, for their USB beacons and some of the best code examples and insights on the planet, Radius Networks got batteries for Christmas. Their RadBeacon X2 and X4 tout a rugged indoor/outdoor design and take a subtle dig at other beacons which often lock out your ability to control the UUID numbers:

You pick the identifiers for your project. Don’t get stuck with UUIDs from your beacon vendor that might overlap with other deployments.

But just as important is its dual-mode, with Radius saying that “RadBeacon is an all-weather, long-life Bluetooth Smart™ proximity multi-beacon using iBeacon™ and AltBeacon™ technology that provides seamless proximity services for both iOS and Android mobile devices. ”

Kontakt Gets Cloud

Kontakt meanwhile has been trying to slip its Cloud Beacon in for the holidays – but is facing a 6-8 week delay in shipment and is currently promising a mid-January delivery. A little late for Christmas maybe, and the delay is a misstep by the company which has been working hard to overhaul the service layer for its beacons.

The launch comes on the heels of Estimote launching its own cloud and fleet management services. While on first glance, the approaches might seem the same, there are big differences in approach.

Both launches point to subtle differences in the way companies are handling security, UUID rotation and over-the-air firmware updates.

Gimbal Series 21

Gimbal, the Qualcomm spin-off, continues its aggressive push to be the “big infrastructure” provider of beacons with the launch of its Series 21.

The company, which has taken indirect flak by outlets like Buzzfeed is highlighting its consumer-friendly privacy policies:

Gimbal has earned TRUSTe’s certification for consumer-controlled privacy, is a member of the Future of Privacy Forum and delivers industry-leading security via its secure software and transmissions.

Advertising and Connected Spaces

OK, they’re not actually beacons. But one is a home town favourite of ours – and an indication of how there will continue to be products and services that build out on top of all the beacons and services, whether Urban Airship or Salesforce.com.

Juice Mobile launched a sister company, Freckle IOT to make a play to be the platform for beacons (and other sensors), with a focus on outdoor media:

“Freckle permits brands to establish and maintain personalized consumer relationships, while allowing advertisers to deliver messages that are measurable,” says Sweeney, CEO of Freckle.  “Bringing the brand activation outside of the store to the interested and connected consumer reframes the conversation. Our solution is immensely scalable, both geographically and in its capacity to connect with future devices. Freckle connects all the dots.”

It’s an indicator that the view of beacons as ad networks will only grow.

At the other end of the spectrum are the highly personalized connected spaces offered by Get Robin. They’re promising automation and analytics for the world of work – and, if you haven’t taken it for a test drive, please do. Their experience is beautifully designed and the company is a demonstration that in addition to huge networks of beacons as ad networks, they’ll also drive much more intimate engagements.

A Busy Year Ahead

These are, of course, just a few of the announcements of the past few weeks. If you’re scanning the main stream media or tech press, beacons are a sort of gentle buzz.

But under the surface, there’s something more profound happening: companies have seen beacons as a deep innovation which they need to understand. But now that we’re past the initial learning curve with beacons, turning them into an operational strategy is giving us everything from ad networks to major transformations.

2015 won’t be the year of the beacon. It will be the year where beacons are the cost of entry to an era of digital which will transform industries in the same way Napster transformed music – the year when beacons are a synonym for the creative power of the Internet of Things to transform the way consumers experience a new landscape of digital embedded in the very physical world in which we live.

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iBeacon for Health: With BLE, a Nudge Will Do

Project Boundary wants to make you healthier.

By placing beacons at key locations, it encourages you to make better choices based on proximity, using gamification to reward participants.

A beacon at an elevator, for example, can send a message encouraging you to take the stairs instead. Do so and unlock the mountaineer achievement and get feedback for making the right decision.

Project Boundary was an entry in the SmartAmerican Challenge, a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow project. The initiative uses Gimbal beacons and the Spark Compass platform to send messages that encourage healthier choices as you move through your day.

The project doesn’t just hold lessons for health and wellness – it’s a reminder that in this new era of contextual and proximity experiences, moving the needle can happen through a collection of small nudges.

In the past, I’ve called this the ‘seductive layer of the Internet of Everything’: a view to experience design that eschews big gestures and heavy-handed coupons or in-your-face advertising for a series of smaller gestures based on context.

We engage, suggest, provide contextually-relevant media. And if we do it right, we can encourage shifts in behavior.

You might not get everyone through the door with your beacon-driven push messages. But increase your foot traffic by 3-4% and it can make a big difference to your bottom line.

Small Nudges, Big Differences

Erik Bjontegard Presents at the SmartAmerica Expo

The CEO of Total Communicator Solutions agrees. I spoke with him recently about Project Boundary, and about his vision for beacons and contextual experiences.

Erik Bjontegard was getting ready to present at the SmartAmerica Expo whose goal is to “boost American competitiveness and provide concrete examples of socio-economic benefits such as job creation, creating new business opportunities, improving the economy, improving/saving lives, by combining Cyber Physical System technology created from significant investments made by both government and private sector.”

Behind the scenes, Erik and his team had jumped through considerable hoops to install Project Boundary at the HHS offices.

“It’s been a rewarding project,” Erik told me. “what we’re doing is we think the first time that beacons have been used to encourage and reward healthier behavior. HHS is excited about it because with beacons we can encourage people to drink more water, to be healthy at the vending machine, to take the stairs instead of elevators. Our approach is to use beacons at key waypoints throughout the HHS building and assign points and rewards if participants make healthy choices.”

The use of Gimbal beacons were a natural fit both because the Spark Compass platform has been built around Gimbal, and because their security layer provided assurances to the security-conscious officials at a government building right next to the capital.

“We had to overcome some big challenges around security and confidentiality,” said Erik. “Plus, we had two months to launch a fully functional platform, set up the beacons, create a system that would give participants points, deploy a gamification layer – it’s been hard work but exciting.”

The demo showed off the concept of Project Boundary, although Erik’s team has been deploying Gimbal beacons in trade show facilities, hospitals and other venues.

Results That Matter

“What we demonstrated was built around two key components for the healthcare system: helping clients lead healthier lives, while keeping an eye on the ramifications for cost and efficiency. Our larger goal is to take Project Boundary out of office settings and into hospitals. If we can create a system that results in tiny shifts in behavior it can move the needle in a significant way.”

“A patient can receive a message the night before seeing their physician reminding them that their procedure requires that they don’t eat, or that they sleep well. Small shifts that can have an impact on the bottom line.”

But beacons are only part of the system, as they are in retail and other environments. Beacons are the “nudge points” based on proximity, but it’s how you integrate them with other data that can make a big impact.

“We use a hybrid model,” says Erik. “Our system also integrates with systems like Qualcomm Life, management systems, and patient databases. The key is to design experiences that change behavior, lead to efficiency, create healthier patients and improve the healthcare system.”

Privacy, Security and Your Very Personal Device

But as in retail, privacy and security are big concerns.

“Especially in health,” says Bjontegard, “We’re dealing with people on a very personal level and we can’t afford to abuse this. We now have a responsibility to value the relationship we’ve established through a very personal device. We’re establishing a personal relationship through a user’s phone, which has become an extension of their being. Wearables will make this more challenging. It’s up to all of us working with beacons and contextual technology to respect this relationship.” (emphasis added).

Indeed. And a clarion call to all of us working with beacons.

Because devices that encourage you to take the stairs are just the beginning.

In this new era, Erik says that “Content may still be king…context is queen…but contextual intelligence will allow the whole universe to work. Beacons are a small tool set that allows us to do that more precisely, to bring contextual intelligence right to your phone or wrist. But there’s a lot more coming.”

In this new era, we’ll look to today’s push messages as the first in a wave of contextual and ambient computing that gets smarter as we go through the day.

The challenges to security (handled in Project Boundary by the advanced security layers offered by the Gimbal beacon and services), privacy and user engagement that we’re exploring today will seem simple compared to the next wave of mesh networks, hub-and-spoke beacon models, big data and wearables.

Project Boundary is a reminder that small gestures and thoughtful design can lead us in the direction of a smarter, more connected and perhaps even a healthier world.

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Where will the boundaries of health and contextual computing take us? How do we respect the fact that a phone is “an extension of a user’s being”? And have you seen other examples of beacons in health and wellness?

Inside Gimbal: Qualcomm Beacons Tackle Bluetooth LE Challenges

Qualcomm Beacon
Qualcomm Beacon

Qualcomm has done a lot right with its new Bluetooth LE beacons. Its devices are low-cost and it offers a full SDK for iOS proximity services, and geofencing support for Android devices.

Gimbal Pricing

Qualcomm is taking a low-cost strategy for the beacons themselves – pricing them as low as $5 for their Series 10 beacon.

It charges on a per user basis for its back-end cloud services with the first 10,000 users per month being supported free of charge and then 6 cents per user per month after that – with prices scaling down to 4 cents per user when you hit the million user mark:

0 – 9,999 Waived
10,000 – 124,999 $0.060 per Active User
125,000 – 999,999 $0.050 per Active User
1,000,000 and up $0.040 per Active User

In theory, because you can set your beacons to ‘public’ mode, you can then scan them to determine their UUID number. This means that you could use the beacons on their own without the Gimbal API or back-end systems and just run them as beacons. This puts them on par with Estimote which has a publicly accessible “out of the box” UUID allowing you to use and test the beacons without back-end services.

So: buy a few of their beacons and build your own back-end. Or use their back-end and you get the first 10,000 users for free.

Bluetooth “Stacks”

This build/buy decision is based on the simple fact that a beacon without a ‘system’ is just a radio transmitter with no listener.

In deploying beacons (in a store, say, or at home) you need some kind of physical device that acts as the ‘beacon’ – transmitting information through Bluetooth Low Energy radio signal that is then scanned by a phone or tablet.

Popular beacons include Estimote, GeLo, Kontakt and others. You can also build your own beacons. Coin, for example, offers an Arduino developer kit.

But putting a beacon on the wall is just half the battle. Because you’ll still need an app on the user’s phone, code inside the app to manage the way that the app detects beacons, and a system (however rough) to manage the beacons themselves.

A lot of developers will want full control of the ‘stack’. This means they want to buy ‘unlocked’ and open beacons, develop a cloud-based system for managing the beacons, and develop the app that goes on a user’s phone. Depending on the use case, this isn’t difficult to do – especially for fairly simple applications.

Using Apple APIs most of the software ‘hooks’ are already built into iOS devices and it’s simply a matter of connecting it all to some kind of content/management back-end system.

Gimbal goes beyond beacon s to include geofences and communication features
Gimbal goes beyond beacon s to include geofences and communication features

Gimbal SDK Features

There are some incredibly appealing reasons, however, to use the Gimbal ‘cloud’. They’ve managed to take a lot of the pain away in developing beacon-based solutions. In some instances, they offer solutions that we haven’t yet seen (but are definitely waiting for) in other beacon solutions:

Private/Public Mode: Gimbal offers an easy way to make beacons “private” locking access to them by unauthorized users. Most beacons are currently transmitting their data in public without a way to toggle into private mode (although the manufacturers promise that the feature is coming). Private mode anonymizes the beacon ID number and only allows its ‘true’ data to be read by authorized apps. Gimbal allows for this with a single click on their dashboard.

Smoothing Out Signal Strength: One of the frustrations in developing with beacons is the tendency of your app to ‘toggle’ between different beacons and proximity zones. This primarily happens because of radio interference in the environment, but can sometimes happen because of small glitches in the operating system on your phone. Gimbal allows you to set “windows” that smooth out fluctuations in signal strength and gives you better control of the user experience:

“This option allows for a window of historic signal strengths to be used for a given device to “smooth” them out to remove quick jumps in signal strength. The larger the window the less the signal strength will jump but the slower it will react to the signal strength changes.”

Finding and Exiting Regions: Like signal strength it can be frustrating to find that your app “finds or exits” a region when your user hasn’t even moved. Gimbal offers more granular control over what it calls “visits” and allows you to set a timer for arrivals. For example, their equivalent for ‘didExitRegion’ allows you to set a number of seconds before the app will confirm an exit.

Gimbal even provides a handy chart that summarizes what you should expect for response times when an app is in background mode. This has been a contentious topic and it’s useful to see them document their findings:

Beacon Transmit Rate Average Time to Arrival Standard Deviation
100 milliseconds 7 seconds 10 seconds
645 milliseconds 15 seconds 6 seconds

Gimbal Cloud Features

In addition to the library that they provide to help you develop your app, Gimbal provides a robust back-end to help you manage interactions with the app, the beacons, and analytics. Their system includes support for:

  • Geofencing
  • Communication to your user’s app (push messages)
  • Analytics which include length of visits
  • Full management of transmitters, hubs and receivers

These features go well beyond beacon management and offer an end-to-end solution that includes geofencing, push messaging, analytics and a robust hub/transmitter dashboard. Whether you use their beacons on their own or use the back-end system as well, Qualcomm has, if nothing else, raised the game for the ‘becosystem’.

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Qualcomm Gimbal: New Beacons Set the Bar for Bluetooth LE

The world of beacons just got a lot more interesting with the launch of Gimbal beacons by Qualcomm. Not only are the beacons cheap but they come with a robust back-end system, software developer kit, and all the weight of the Qualcomm brand.

While start-ups like Estimote have grabbed most of the headlines in the early days of beacons, they’ve yet to launch their full back-end systems.

Now along comes Qualcomm whose Gimbal beacons come in two sizes and at a nearly negligible price of $5 when ordered in bulk.

Two Beacon Types

The Series 10 beacon “has a small (28mmx40mmx5.6mm), lightweight, and sleek design with a loop on one side to allow installation flexibility.” It’s about the size of a dime and is recommended for short ‘alive times’:

“The battery life under typical conditions is about 3 months when transmitting at almost twice per second. This makes it suitable for applications looking to actively sight beacons while running in the foreground. Gimbal will send a notification when a battery is running low. In addition to its location features and long battery life, this small beacon also has a temperature sensing feature via a thermistor sensor.”

The Series 20 beacon, on the other hand, is the more robust of the two and comes in at the size of a playing card:

“The Series 20 beacon has a configurable omni-directional or directional antenna. It uses four standard AA alkaline batteries, all of which are replaceable while the unit remains mounted. The battery life is approximately 1 year, but this unit has the added benefit of transmitting at 10x per second which affords applications the ability to monitor for it while in the background while still providing a responsive customer experience.”

It’s What’s Behind the Beacon That Matters

But a beacon is just a transmitter without an app to receive the data, and an app is just an app without a back-end to manage it.

Qualcomm has jumped to the front of the line in providing a fully integrated beacon solution by launching a robust software development kit (including Android and iOS support), a back-end dashboard, and other developer tools.

Qualcomm Gimbal Beacons Come with Robust Dashboard
Qualcomm Gimbal Beacons Come with Robust Dashboard

While we haven’t tested the back-end system, its features are promising: full geofencing capabilities (not dissimilar I think to Radius Network’s Proximity Kit), analytics, communication tools and application management.

One of the appealing features of the Gimbal system is how it handles management of beacon events: by allowing developers to set up rules on their back-end system, you can set entry and exit rules for beacon proximity. They’ve also thought beyond beacons – and have built in the capacity to manage hubs, receivers and transmitters in the same dashboard.

The Game Has Been Elevated

With the Qualcomm launch there’s clearly a new game in town. While GigaOm seems to confuse iBeacon with beacons, it’s not Apple that should be afraid of Gimbal.

Instead, it’s the companies making beacons that will have to elevate their game – and fast. Estimote, in particular, will need to move past shipping beacons and start shipping the back-end management tools or it will find itself left behind in the fast-moving world of Bluetooth LE.

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