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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