Beacons Meet WiFi: Cisco Meraki Has Its Eye on Connected Spaces

Bluetooth LE beacons have shifted beyond prototypes and pilots into large-scale distribution. But this shift has brought us bumping up against the downside to a beacon’s elegance and simplicity. Because if a beacon is a relatively simple (and dumb) device, how do you intelligently manage them at scale?

One company thinks it has a solution. Meraki, a division of Cisco, launched a WiFi end point which can both act as a beacon and monitor devices in the area, report back to a cloud-based dashboard, and allow you to manage and shape WiFi traffic at the same time.

I spoke recently to the Meraki team. Adam Weis and Simon Tompson gave me an overview of their system and approach. For a company that’s managing massive networks of WiFi end points (70,000 hotel rooms in one case), they know a thing or two about fleet management.

And as beacons shift into distribution at scale, their approach will both help relieve some of the pain of beacon monitoring while offering the possibly larger advantage of being able to shape WiFi traffic and monitor WiFi networks from the same intuitive dashboard.

Beacons Call Home

The beauty of iBeacon (the trademarked term by Apple for its preferred configuration for the open standard of the Bluetooth Smart devices) was its simplicity. Apple did the heavy lifting in thinking about how beacons could be configured, provided easy-to-use software tools to help you create apps, and then stood back while the media branded the beacon industry with the iBeacon brush.

The move by Apple helped to accelerate an industry. By opening up support for beacon detection (and using your phone or tablet to broadcast as a beacon), we finally had a single standard that would work across all the major phone platforms. And by making the tools simple to use, it spurred a wave of innovation and testing which took advantage of the fact that a beacon doesn’t actually do very much.

Like any radio transmitter, a beacon transmits a signal. The signal contains a small packet of data (which also helps protect battery usage on both the beacon and the user’s phone), and that data includes unique ID numbers, some power and battery data, and a signal strength – all of which are used to identify which beacon you’ve detected and how far away you are.

But as the industry rapidly matured, this simplicity also started to show some cracks.

There was a scramble to make developing beacon detection for Android as simple as it was for Apple. And with Apple willing to enforce its trademarks and proprietary specifications, we started seeing separate beacon broadcasting specifications emerge, with a better-known example being the AltBeacon standard.

Beacon manufacturers emerged and took advantage of how relatively simple it was to build a beacon. But their simplicity came at a cost: it’s easy to create a beacon, configure it, put in a coin cell battery, and attach it to your wall.

But the beacons didn’t do much more than their original purpose. They broadcast a signal but they didn’t receive anything. If you wanted to reconfigure them or monitor their battery you needed to use an app while standing next to the beacon.

Your beacons, in other words, had no way to call home.

Managing Beacons at Scale

For a retailer, the idea that you’d deploy thousands of beacons across hundreds of locations and have no simple way to manage or monitor the devices without sending out staff seemed like a non-starter.

In the early days of the industry, more than one beacon company told me that managing your beacons wasn’t necessary: the devices were so cheap you could just throw them out when they died. But try telling that to a national retailer (or even a large museum!). Because the cost of training staff and sending them out to pop a new beacon on the wall was an instant deterrent to large installations.

The solutions included payloads embedded in user apps, extending the battery life through improved beacon performance, embedding beacons in light bulbs, or plugging them in. By making beacons last longer, the need to replace them would decrease.

But it was clear that beacon fleet management would quickly become a differentiator for the companies that could manage it well. Companies like Netclearance Systems launched a cloud management system and Kontakt.io recently launched its Cloud Beacon.

These solutions relied on placing another device in a store or venue: a sort of “hub” which could both call home and send/receive data, and could connect with beacons in the area in order to update their firmware, change their IDs, or monitor their batteries or performance.

In a World of WiFi, We Have An Endpoint

But Meraki thought it had a more elegant solution. Because why add another device to your location when you already need a box for the most pervasive endpoints available: WiFi.

The company has changed the game for how institutions manage WiFi infrastructure – moving us from the dark ages of what often looked like a command line interfaces to an elegant cloud-based solution that had a lot in common with the most intuitive dashboards available.

This was industrial scale WiFi management with a dashboard your mother might even love.

They took the pain out of managing WiFi endpoints. Organizations ranging from universities to hotel chains deploy, manage, monitor, secure and shape traffic for often widely distributed systems – and with Meraki do so in an intuitive way. (They were so successful that Cisco snapped them up).

So Meraki had a simple premise: since you’re already monitoring your WiFi with their endpoints, why not also use that same dashboard to monitor nearby beacons?

And while they were at it, they threw in the capacity of their WiFi box to ACT as a beacon – a boon to a smaller location that might not need a beacon in every aisle but just wants to send a beacon message when you arrive at the front door.

Their solution solved a simple problem: can I easily monitor all the beacons in the area, keep an eye on their batteries and other signals, and do something useful with the data?

Adam Weis, a brilliant guy and someone who helped drive a lot of the thinking behind the Meraki approach, explains:

Is Monitoring and Configuring the Same Thing?

The Meraki system is simple. It has an incredibly elegant and easy-to-use interface. It not only broadcasts as a beacon, but lets you monitor for ALL Bluetooth-enabled devices in its region:

It helps answer one of the more pressing challenges of fleet management: making sure your beacons are still working and that their batteries haven’t run out. By also monitoring other devices in the region, Meraki is providing a richer data set. I can now compare, for example, the number of total devices and then cross-tabulate that data to the number of beacon “app impressions”.

Meraki can’t, however, update a beacon’s firmware or update their UUIDs. To do that, you need to be able to “pair” with the beacon and the pairing is usually handled by tools provided by the beacon manufacturer. In many cases this might not be an issue – but an ideal scenario would be for Meraki to also partner with beacon manufacturers to allow institutions to also PAIR with the beacons via the Meraki dashboard.

In the meantime, it’s where solutions like the Kontakt Cloud Beacon come in – systems to manage your fleet of beacons and their ID numbers, but without the advantage of being a full WiFi endpoint.

WiFi + Beacon Is A Big Win for Many Use Cases

But let’s face it – in many cases, Meraki is enough. A library, for example, probably doesn’t need to swap the UUIDs of its beacons very often and firmware updates aren’t usually deployed, or rarely. And Meraki offers the advantage that it takes care of another key challenge in creating a ‘connected space’ – you need to manage WiFi access as well, shape WiFi traffic, and would prefer to do so in an intuitive way.

If your WiFi network can also ACT as a beacon and monitor the small fleet you have set up in your hotel lobby, say, then you’re getting two for the price of one: an intuitive WiFi management tool, a beacon, and the ability to monitor any additional beacons you place in your space.

Where Technologies Intersect

But there might be something more profound at play.

Because as beacons have shifted into larger deployments, they’ve also shifted into being just one of several technologies being used to ‘digitize physical space’. And it intrigues me to think about a future in which beacon detection can be combined with network monitoring and access management and then be used to shape new kinds of experiences in a location.

Today, you drop by a Starbucks and hop on a WiFi network. But in the future, a combination of beacon interactions and WiFi access might be combined to create new kinds of experiences.

We call beacons the “gateway drug to the Internet of Things”. They’ve been easy to understand. And they open our eyes to a world in which physical space is a new digital touch point. As they start to intersect with other technologies their management will become more complex but the types of interactions we can enable will also become more elegant, more innovative, and hopefully more useful to the end user.

Meraki has shown us one way that beacon technology will start to intersect with others. As we create the digital fabrics of physical space, it’s an early indicator that the beacon era is just getting started.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

What other technologies will beacons intersect with? What are the use cases for WiFi and beacon monitoring and where do you see Meraki fitting into your plans? Drop a line below.

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Tutorial: Using Beacon and iBeacon Technologies on Your iPhone / iPad with PubNub | Guest Post

iBeacon has been quite a buzzword since the release of iOS 7 when Apple enabled all their iPhones since the 4S with this new BLE technology.

The iBeacon is simply a protocol that takes advantage of the new Bluetooth Low Energy technologies. It has been easy for companies, aside from Apple, to emulate similar protocols such as estimote or AltBeacon. As a result, we thought iBeacon and PubNub could fit together in some pretty cool ways.

In this article, we will explain how the iBeacon protocol works by taking a closer look at how the emitted data is actually structured. We will move onto how to use the iOS sdk to detect and emit beacons. Finally we will try to see if we can use other protocols on iOS devices.

 

iBeacon Detecto
iBeacon Emitter

 

What an iBeacon’s Advertisement Looks Like

According to the Bluetooth v4 specification, a beacon advertises a data package called the Scan Response Data.

This Data can be up to 31 bytes. If we create a smaller scan response, the remaining bytes will be filled with as many 0s.

The scan response is divided into what are called AD structures. They are sequences of bytes of various size, with a predefined structure that goes as follows:

  • The first byte represents the number of bytes left to the end of the AD structure. This allows a receiver of this structure to know when it ends and when a new AD structure starts.
  • The second byte is the ID of an AD structure type.
  • The rest of the bytes are data that is structured in a predefined way depending on what AD type was defined by the previous byte.

That’s all there is to it. Just a succession of AD structures.

Most beacon protocols have only 2 AD structures, which are as follows.

The first one has 3 bytes:

  • The first byte will be: 0x02 because we only count the following bytes.
  • The second byte is: 0x01 which indicates we have a “Flag” AD type.
  • The last byte represents theses flags. These flags express whether the emitting device is, in “Limited Discoverable Mode”, “General Discoverable Mode”, etc… The byte is computed the following way:

The 5 flags are represented by the first 5 bits of a byte. The value of these bits defines whether the flag is ON or OFF. The binary number is then written as a hexadecimal value which will be advertised. An example may clear things up:

bit 0 OFF LE Limited Discoverable Mode
bit 1 ON LE General Discoverable Mode
bit 2 OFF BR/EDR Supported
bit 3 ON Simultaneous LE and BR/EDR to same Device Capable (controller)
bit 4 ON Simultaneous LE and BR/EDR to same Device Capable (host)

The resulting binary value hence becomes: b00011010 Converted into a hex, we get: 0x1A

That’s all there is to the first AD structure! Let’s look into the second one, which contains most of the information we need!

 

image00

 

The second structure can be of a different size according to the protocol. Let’s look at the detected scan response emitted by an iPhone.

  • First byte is 0x1A (26 in hexadecimal).
  • The next byte is always 0xFF which means we have a “Manufacturer Specific” type of AD structure.
  • As a result, the 2 following bytes represent the company identifier as defined on bluetooth.org. For an iOS device, the manufacturer is “Apple Inc.” whose company ID is 76. In hexadecimal value, this is equal 0x004C. The ID, written as little endian, takes up 2 bytes. Here it will be 0x04C 0x00 in this order.
  • The rest is Manufacturer specific data.

For the iBeacon protocol, the 2 first bytes of the manufacturer specific data are always 0x02 0x15. The next 16 bytes are a UUID representing the advertiser’s organizational unit and the 4 following bytes are going to be the major and the minor. They are 2 bytes long numbers.

There is a final byte at the end of the data structure called the TX Power, which represents the device’s signal reference intensity a meter away from it. This value is held into a single byte which is the two’s complement of the signal’s intensity in dB.

Computing the distance to a Beacon

When a scan response is detected by a device, it also determines the intensity of the received signal. Hence the iBeacon protocol uses the reference value held in the TX Power byte and compares it to the intensity of the signal effectively received. This allows iBeacons to compute an estimation of the distance to the emitting beacon. This is a great quality of iBeacons, but note that the intensity of the signal depends vastly on existing obstacles or simply on the geometry of the room. As a result Apple does not recommend to use iBeacons to determine precise locations.

The algorithm used to compute the distance is not open-source, although others have tried to emulate matching ones.

How to Use Apple’s SDK for iBeacon

Emitting or detecting iBeacon data is organized around iBeacon regions.

 

image01

These regions are instantiated with optional initial values such as the UUID, major or minor. In the case of detecting an iBeacon, this region object defines what type of beacon scan response should be detected. For example, if you provide a UUID, only the beacons with matching UUIDs will be detected, regardless of the major and minor. If you also provide these values, you’ll detect only beacons matching all three of these values.

When emitting an iBeacon signal, the region object based on the values of the UUID, major and minor generates the data structure to be advertised.

As you may have guessed, this makes the iOS SDK very simple to use! For more detailed examples, check out our beacon emitter and beacon detector tutorials.

However, it also makes things much more difficult when you are trying to use a protocol different from iBeacon! Let’s look into that immediately.

Using Apple’s SDK for AltBeacon or Estimote

We have seen how complicated the scan response can be, and how Apple simplified the SDK so that we just need to enter the UUID, major and minor to set it up. However, with other beacon protocols, the scan response has a different structure which Apple makes hard for us to tweak.

Detecting other beacons

When detecting iBeacons, the locationManager:didRangeBeacons:InRegion: method is called on the event of a detected signal. However, this is very specific to iBeacons. When detecting another BLE signal, you must not use a CLLocationManager instance, but a CBPeripheralManager which detects ANY BLE advertisement EXCEPT iBeacons, which will be blocked.

The callback that will be triggered upon detection is centralManager:didDiscoverPeripheral:advertisementData:RSSI: . The advertisement data that is returned is a dictionary holding 2 objects; one for each data structure of the scan response. Here is a sample response from an AltBeacon.

{
kCBAdvDataIsConnectable = 0;
kCBAdvDataManufacturerData = <1801beac 0cf052c2 97ca407c 84f8b62a ac4e9020 00090006 c5>;
}

The top element represents the first, three bytes long, “Flag” data structure. The second one represents the manufacturer specific data following the bytes describing the size and type of the data structure.

This is good news for us, and means we can detect any beacon information!

Emitting another beacon

We have found things are much trickier when it comes to advertising custom beacon scan responses. We can try to build an NSDictionnary similar to the one detected and try to advertise it using the startAdvertising method.

However the advertisement data keys available for detection are limited to only CBAdvertisementDataLocalNameKey and CBAdvertisementDataServiceUUIDsKey when it comes to advertising the data. It is Apple’s way of preventing us from building manufacturer specific data outside of the iBeacon protocol.

So there you have it! We went through apple’s iBeacon protocol, looked at how we could detect other beacons and apple’s restrictions to advertising data. We have some working examples and tutorials to build an iBeacon app on Swift – check out our beacon emitter and beacon detector tutorials, which allow you to get the best out of iBeacons by establishing a two-way communication which beacons aren’t usually capable of. The reason why we think it’s great is that we use PubNub to enhance beacons’ capabilities while still keeping their low energy consumption asset! Sweet, right?

Resources

Guest Authors 

Norvan Sahiner and Sunny Gleason wrote this tutorial series on behalf of PubNub, a platform that allows you to build and scale realtime apps for connected devices.

Kontakt Cloud Beacon: Shipping Goodness

cloud-beacon

Kontakt.io is finally shipping its Cloud Beacon developer kits – and the little units pack a powerful punch.

Their Cloud Beacon is one of a suite of emerging technologies that support large-scale beacon deployments. They help overcome issues with security, monitoring, management and quality assurance and bring proximity technology to an industrial-scale/enterprise-grade level which may soon make them as ubiquitous as smoke detectors in some businesses.

What Cloud Beacon Solves

Some days it feels like we’ve been, well, plugging away at beacons for years. And yet the technology has only really started moving past pilots and tests in the past 6-12 months.

Even many of the large-scale deployments have been single beacon installations – chains of stores with a beacon at the front door triggering a push message or interaction when you arrive.

And one of the rate-limiting factors has been management, security and ‘data at scale’.

The approach of the beacon manufacturers has ranged from treating beacons as relatively disposable end points (they’re relatively cheap for the power they pack, so you can afford to deploy them, remove them, and then deploy more), to cloud-based solutions which use the end user’s phone to complete management tasks as a sort of hidden payload (for example, run a quick check of the beacon’s battery in the background of a user’s app).

For security, beacon companies have either randomized the ID numbers that beacons broadcast, provided on-site management tools which require a management app (and some staff), or encapsulated the beacon access in the app-side SDK.

In other words, there are lots of solutions to some of the most vexing challenges with beacons, especially if you plan to deploy them at scale:

  • Create enough randomization or security so that your beacons can’t be hijacked
  • Be able to change the UUIDs and broadcast information of your beacon (or use cloud-based services)  so that you can provide different access abilities to different apps at different times
  • Monitor the battery levels of your beacons so that they don’t go “dark”

Beacons Are An Internet End Point

The solution of Kontakt.io is to treat beacons as another Internet end point.

Their belief is that a beacon is just another ‘dumb transmitter’ if it’s simply sitting on a shelf broadcasting a signal. If your app is doing all the work of connecting to and managing the beacon, it’s one step removed from the Internet of Things.

By connecting beacons to a little mini hub, we start to unlock the first step in a larger series of values which come from being a node that’s directly connected to the Internet rather than through the proxy of an app or mobile device.

What Cloud Beacon Does

Put a cloud beacon in your store or factory and it can “talk” to beacons within 200 meters. By being able to do so, it can:

  • Check their power levels
  • Update their firmware
  • Swap, change, rotate or update their broadcast packets (UUIDs, frequency, RSSI and other data)
  • Make sure they’re still online

The Cloud Beacon can do so because it has the capacity to couple with the beacons in its vicinity and then “call home” via WiFi. You can toggle the frequency with which it calls home and manage the cloud beacon itself much as you manage a beacon’s advertising intervals and settings to conserve power.

Packing additional punch, the Cloud Beacon also does passive WiFi monitoring to detect the presence of mobile devices in the vicinity. For data-conscious enterprise, this allows a more thorough data set of visitors – telling you, for example, that there were 1,000 visitors to your store and that 10% had a beacon-enabled app.

The Magic of Connected Spaces

But I think where Cloud Beacon, and other technologies like it, get their magic is that, first, they advance the ability of beacons to be deployed at scale. It isn’t always feasible to have staff checking your beacons across a chain of 1,000 stores, and holding that capacity within the payload of a user or administrative app has its drawbacks.

But Cloud Beacon represents the larger move to an Internet of Things in which relatively dumb and simple devices are nodes in a larger web of connected devices.

As beacons evolve to include mesh capabilities, to carry more data, to connect with more things, the concept of connected spaces won’t be enabled by single devices but by a cloud of services and gizmos each serving a purpose within the larger task of making the physical world a digital interface.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Have you received your Cloud Beacon developer kit yet? What do you think? What other solutions do you think are rising to the top for fleet management and beacon deployments?

Apple Launches an iBeacon [and they call it a watch]


The speculation was correct. Apple launched its own iBeacon.

But it didn’t come in the form you might have been expecting. Instead, you’ll strap it to your wrist and in so doing, the power of beacons to help make sense of the world around us will have a very personal, tactile and physical connection – right down to our pulse, the steps we take, and the friends we send our heart beats to.

Setting aside the lust-worthy bands or Swiss-level precision of the bevel (check out the “Watch Guy” to learn why), the Apple Watch is clearly more than a beacon. It’s a fusion of industrial design, software and sensors. But for those of us working in the world of beacons it’s a reminder that the power of proximity won’t rest in a one-to-one relationship between dumb and smart devices, but between many smart devices connecting to many other smart devices.

Dumb Beacons, Big Challenges

The challenge for the ‘becosystem’ will be breaking the lock on the mental model which was facilitated by the first wave of proximity beacons.

Companies like Estimote established the standard: they promised that simple, elegantly designed ‘motes’ could be popped onto the wall of your local store and deliver coupons or other messages.

And the uptake of beacons, whether in museums, Tulip gardens or your local coffee shop, was powered in large part by its seeming simplicity. The code you need on an Apple or Android device is relatively simple: a few lines in your software and your app can listen for beacons and, once detected, do “stuff”.

The initial challenge was to figure out what that stuff should be.

This turned out to be harder than most folks imagined: because suddenly, you had to shift from designing for mobile devices to designing for something far more messy and imperfect.

Namely, the physical world.

Push the wrong message at the wrong time and you’re suddenly sending a “Nice to See You” message in the toilets rather than the front door of your restaurant.

Reality is fuzzy, filled with interference, there’s little clarity between the shoe department and accessories even though the ‘zones’ might seem like they’re clearly marked.

Reality wasn’t designed to be digital and yet the promise of digitizing the grocery store was compelling enough to at least try.

What we discovered, however, was that even though beacons are relatively dumb, you need to be reasonably smart about how you deploy, manage and create experiences around them.

Beyond the Dumb Beacon

We’ve called beacons the gateway drug to the Internet of Everything.

On their own, they pose intense design challenges – challenges which, it turns out, can’t always be tackled with the elegance they deserve. And we admit that we went through months of trial and error and testing to even approach getting those challenges right. (Thankfully it’s pretty much all we do, so we had the luxury of focus).

Until now, the use of beacons has mostly focused on treating them solely as ‘dumb’ devices.

Powered by Bluetooth Low Energy (or Bluetooth Smart), beacons are, after all, not much more than radio transmitters that broadcast small packets of data which are picked up by nearby phones or other devices.

But the power of beacons is both a product of the paradigm they represent, and the exponential value they provide when coupled with other technologies.

Bluetooth Smart (BLE) uses a service-based architecture upon which profiles are built. Even excluding technologies such as passive WiFi monitoring, BLE itself has over a dozen ‘profiles’, from proximity (which powers beacons) to heart beat monitoring, time monitoring and “find me”/link loss services.

Add in chips to detect humidity, a gyroscope and an accelerometer and suddenly a simple beacon becomes a tiny powerhouse of data.

The Tempo

The Tempo is still one of our favorite devices. In spite all the beacons we’ve seen and tested, these little ‘stones’ still have the best app-side user interface, the best design, and give Apple a run for its money in terms of form and function.

And they’ve recently added iBeacon support. Richard Hancock, CEO of Blue Maestro,  tells me that “Through the app, users can turn on iBeacon mode and it will act as both an environment monitor and an iBeacon at the same time by intertwining broadcasts.”

“Tempo is particularly suited to use cases where iBeacon functionality and environmental monitoring is important, such as in museums, historic tourist attractions, transportation networks and stadiums.” He explains that “as iBeacon functionality is expanded by Apple (and Android), we will have the potential to do neat things with Tempo, such as automatically determine whether the environmental data has been harvested and, if not, trigger the download from the device, without having to involve a user.”

The device isn’t just beautiful to hold. The app isn’t just a rock solid interface which, you know, actually works. (I can’t tell you how many times we scream in frustration at the beacon companies whose apps time out when trying to pair so that you can recalibrate the settings).

Instead, Blue Maestro reminds us that “beacons” are already more than just proximity – they’re turning into incredibly powerful, multi-sensing machines.

The Smarter Cloud

Coupled with smarter devices is the smarter cloud.

Kontakt, for example, has launched its Cloud Beacon. Its power doesn’t rest, however, in the fact that it’s WiFi enabled. Its power rests in the simplicity with which it lets you manage fleets of beacons and harvest anonymized data.

Kontakt, whose sole focus is beacons, brings its not insubstantial expertise to the task of extending a simple beacon into a full network that combines WiFi with cloud-based control.

But from another angle, companies like Salesforce.com, propose extending existing ‘smart infrastructure’ in order to extend it to beacons:

Why The Apple Watch Reminds Us of the REAL Future

But these developments pale in comparison to the real power of beacons.

We’ve long proposed that beacons represent the first in a paradigm-change for computing:

  • Proximity is different from location. Whether through beacons, Google’s Project Tango, or increasingly refined ambient signal detection, we’ve entered an era in which we can know what we’re close to, whether a stationary shelf or a moving vehicle.
  • Because our devices can now ‘see’ what they’re close to, the physical world itself is becoming a digital interface. This blurring of the digital with the physical means that there will soon be no offline.

And if our phones can ‘see’, and if our devices are also beacons (which is the case with Android-L capable phones and Apple devices) then it means we can also see….each other. And our devices can start to talk. And if our devices can start to talk, they can also start to do so without us even necessarily participating in the exhange.

Google Now gets us where we need to go. Our Apple Watch will gently tap us on the wrist if we’re driving in the right direction.

These ambient cues may still connect us to our devices and make us aware that they’re working on our behalf, but over time they’ll be more ambient and calm than pushy and forthright.

Lights in the Muji Change Room – One Day, They Won’t Need You To Touch

Objects will glow. Digital signage will subtly change. The change room in your local store will switch its lighting to show how your outfit looks in the actual light that you typically find yourself in.

And your watch.

Your watch is the new skeumorphic. Mostly familiar, mostly simple looking, it even tells the time and has a crown.

But as a beacon, it takes sensors, broadcasting and connection to a new level.

Your pulse is a text message. A gentle tap on your wrist is an interaction with another beacon.

Your watch won’t just be a connection to dumb devices planted in the world around you. For better or worse, your watch turns your physical body into a digital interface.

Mesh networks, continuity between devices, objects talking to each other, and our very pulse are creating a new canvas upon which digital interactions will be deployed.

We’ve said that with beacons, we’re inviting engagement with the physical world through the most personal object most of us own (our phone).

But Apple Watch and other wearables are extending this metaphor into even more personal spaces, into even more personal realms of data and connection, and are part of a network of nodes which is larger than we can conceivably imagine.

So, What’s Your Channel?

We spend a lot of time thinking about beacons. Trying to figure out how to deploy 10s and 100s of thousands of beacons keeps us awake at night worrying about signal interference and sun spots. (OK, well, we DO have our moments of random terror I suppose).

But what’s more challenging, and we think more interesting, is what it means for the user to be walking through an array of beacons that cover entire towns.

A visit to the grocery store can be a utility or it can be a cultural exploration. A wander down Main Street can be a chance to browse and window shop or it can be a chance to connect to community. A digital billboard can be an ad, or it can be the start of a story, an aspiration or an adventure.

The Internet gave us access to a universe of stories. Social media connected those tales to others. Beacons connected them to the physical world. And wearables bring them back to the domain with which we still have our most visceral and emotional connections: the physical world, our selves.

Apple and Samsung and Nike have invited themselves onto the most personal real estate there is. But it’s the connection of these devices to the world around us that creates the truly profound change – and gives both the ability for data to be harvested and experiences to be driven, pushed and personalized; and for us to understand these connections as a new art form, a new network of pulsing, ambient and personal power.

The motto of this site is Be The Beacon.

Now, more than ever, we are.

Toronto Dsrupted – Join Me!

I’ll be presenting this week at the Dsrupted Conference in Toronto. If you’re interested in beacons, digital signage and the next generation of ‘screens’ and devices you should join us.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Thoughts on wearables? Comments on Apple Watch? Drop them in the comments below.

And a side note: if you’ve commented before your contribution should immediately appear. But I’ve turned moderation back on because the darn Akismet spam filter just doesn’t seem up to the task. So, apologies in advance if it takes me a bit of time to approve your comment.

Grow Beyond the Beacon: Shift Your Business to the Internet of Things | Guest Post


Bluetooth Low Energy came out of Nokia, an important innovator in mobile wireless technology. It was renamed from Wibree to Bluetooth 4.0 when it was handed over to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) which allowed it to gain adoption quickly behind the Bluetooth brand

When Apple and others picked it up to make indoor localization consumer ready, they incubated a whole industry of beacon vendors and alternative approaches to BLE for indoor localization.

In concept, Apple’s idea is the simplest (and probably here to stay). But beyond beacons lies a whole area of untapped potential by leveraging the same technology in the current crop of beacons.

Discover the Power Inside Existing Beacons

Almost all the beacons on the market have a complete Bluetooth 4.0 stack waiting to be discovered by makers and product people.

Beacons work like lighthouses, broadcasting their position into the air, so navigators can use them as guides. These Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices could broadcast other information as well such as battery power or sensor data from the environment. Since BLE devices are usually extremly low power devices running on battery, they are small and independent enough that we can attach them to anything – from plants to fridges, cars, pillows, cats, …

That idea of super low power devices being various helpers in our everyday life isn’t new. It’s called the Internet of Things (IOT), which is the catchphrase for an industry that overlaps with beacons – in fact you could claim it’s the same thing.

Enabling IoT from where we are today with beacons is rewarding, business-wise, as it moves the product from being ‘another beacon thing’ to a specific consumer use case. At the same time, it’s not technically challenging, because beacons already use IoT technology at their heart.

Using IOT To Solve Problems

The key differentiator is on product design and solving a specific problem.

Let’s take plant watering, which is something that I regularly do wrong, so i’d really like something that shows me water levels on my phone.

Consumer adoption of digital moist meter solutions were always hindered by the fact that they are expensive, power hungry, big, and ugly. Here’s the secret sauce: any Beacon has gpios. If you stick two of them into soil, you have a moist meter.

It doesn’t stop with sensors. Actuators can be driven over BLE as well. Imagine something as simple as an automated hamster feeding machine controllable from your iPhones and Androids. How about a physical door opener or something that let’s me remote start those fricking Roombas from my couch (you know, the simple things that matter!)

In fact, my team built something that let’s you do that. It’s called the airfy Beacon.

As a consumer ready iBeacon compliant device, it lets you trigger lights using the iOS proximity APIs, but it’s also a hacker device, letting you, well.. stick a bunch of wires in soil and have the thing broadcast moist levels. Check it out on Kickstarter.

Bringing the Internet TO Things

A more elaborate aspect of the Internet of Things is literally bringing the Internet to things, we call it end to end IP. Connecting tiny and cheap (read: high margin) devices directly to the unrelenting creative power of the Internet is a makers dream.

Looking at the remarkable success of the Arduino, we can learn that enabling hackers is something that can be lucrative and personally rewarding, up to becoming a legendary product.

“End to End” is a long shot, with my team working together with scientists from the Berlin FU to get there. So focusing our resources and abilities on extending the beacon ecosystem into sensors and actuator networks over bluetooth is a nice short term sprint, available to anyone who already builds beacons.

In terms of technology, BLE has already existing tools available, such as GATT, to enable announcement and data exchange.

Think of it as a way to say “I’m sort of like a button, when the user presses me, I’ll send you a message”. It’s the same thing Bluetooth mice do.

Again, the best thing about all of this: you already built it. All you need to do to change markets, is to piggyback a new use case on top of your existing Beacons.

About the Author

Arvid E. Picciani (aep) is the CTO of airfy.com, an ex-Nokia engineer, IoT pioneer, and self-proclaimed embedded devices hacker. You can find more posts by Arvid on the airfy Blog.

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iWatch, iBeacon and What's Wrong With Wearables

iWatch Concept from Charlie No

When you working with iBeacon technology, the coming generation of wearable devices seems like a natural extension to how you think about user experiences.

What better place, after all, to push a welcome message triggered by a beacon than to your wrist? If you’re not asking your customer to take their phone out of their pocket every 15 seconds as they wander the aisles of the grocery store, surely you can increase information and message density if all they need to do is glance at their watch?

But just like the earliest press reports and experiments with iBeacon technology were mostly clumsy and focused on a narrow set of use cases, the way we view smart watches is partly wrong and is focused more on the retailer, hardware maker, or ad platform than on the actual person who needs to wear the thing.

What a Watch Means

I still remember my first watch. It looked kind of stylish with a gold edge and clean white face and serif font symbols. Wearing it made me feel – well, adult, I guess.

I suppose it was a status symbol – although I come from a generation where you didn’t measure your peers by the kinds of sneakers they had, so it was probably a less blatant symbol than a smart watch might be today. But it was certainly a marker – it said to ME, at least, that I had passed a border into some kind of pseudo adult world of responsibility and ornamentation.

To that end, Forbes speculates that the recent hiring blitz for wearables talent at Apple means they’re about to become a fashion company, ready to launch a luxury brand:

I contend that Apple is in the process of building a brand strategy that will make the smartwatch in general and the iWatch in particular ubiquitous in the high-end retail environment and in popular culture. Through this positioning all of the utility promised for health, fitness and contextual information will be delivered—but that is the cart not the horse.

And while this might seem obvious to the general consumer (a watch should look beautiful, should convey more than utility) it isn’t always obvious to tech-obsessed engineering focused companies like Google or Amazon. As Khoi Vin neatly summarizes:

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

The Control of Time

But my watch was also something else. While perhaps illusory, it was also a symbol of control. It gave me the chance to have personal control over The Time.

It meant I could manage it, segment it, keep an eye on it. Being able to “Watch The Time” was now personal, and I had the tool to do so.

In my generation, time was perhaps the defining anxiety. Popular culture imagined “a time” when we’d have more time for leisure and would need to dedicate less time to work. Technology was imagined as a time saver – meals could be prepared faster with microwaves, houses could be cleaned faster, we’d need to spend less time at the office. We were on the cusp of a society-wide leisure class, where time would be released because of technology and would give us more time for the things we love.

We were trying to shake the boundaries of time. Live longer, enjoy more, work less. Technology would make it possible.

But instead, time took second position to a new anxiety, a new obsession.

We don’t talk about time anymore – other than as subservient to a new age of anxiety, one driven by information. Time has been lost because we have to deal with too much information. Time isn’t the end game, the thing to be controlled.

Instead, it’s data we wrestle with: too much information, too many e-mails, too many tweets and wall posts and pins, too many late night text messages from our boss and too many feeds we feel we need to keep on top of.

We once wrestled with, dreaded and remained hopeful that we could control time. Now, we wrestle with, dread and remain hopeful that we can, somehow, control the flow of information.

We worship at the altar of the cloud, of Big Data, and information becoming smarter. But this comes coupled with anxieties over surveillance, information overload, and desperately looking for a new tool, a new dashboard, a new way to deal with the deluge of data.

iBeacon: Programmed to Receive

Bluetooth LE beacons are simple. They send out small packets of data which your phone receives and can then act upon.

From this paradigm, the design of user experiences seems to follow a natural progression to ‘pushing’ data and information to a customer based on proximity.

But as I’ve long argued on this blog, beacons very quickly challenge UX designers to think about user experiences in new ways:

  • How many messages are too many?
  • How do you trade off ambient and ‘push’ experiences?
  • If beacons are triggers to real world people, places and things – how does the physical world itself need to change to enable to user experience?
  • What happens when you have more than one beacon? What happens when people (like shop assistants) are beacons too?
  • How do you juggle the fact that a phone can detect more information density than a typical consumer – especially when you combine the information density of a phone with the visual density of a physical place?

And yet the current generation of smart watches treat the wrist as an extension of the “receive/broadcast” paradigm.

They’re just another screen that’s programmed to receive – whether ads, push notices, or directions to work.

Driven primarily by companies with a vested interest in creating more advertising space, wearables are treated primarily as another screen that’s meant to receive.

In contrast, health wearables like Fitbit or Nike Fuel are data collection engines. Ostensibly acting to motivate and measure, to give you a sense of control over the amount of exercise you do, the number of calories you burn, or the number of hours you sleep – they walk a difficult line between providing this sense of control and just adding to the problem – more data to parse in your already information-saturated day.

Smart watches are another ad screen (albeit with lots of other stuff wrapped around that idea). And health wearables are data gathering engines programmed to create more data on your phone, tablet or PC.

More data, more information, and less time.

A Clean, Well-Lit Space

In a seminal interview about virtual worlds seven years ago, Eben Moglen, an IBM fellow, spoke about the challenges of digital space on our sense of privacy and control:

I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self…We understood when the Soviet Empire decayed that all over it were places where people felt trapped in webs of surveillance and betrayal and interaction that had a kind of sinister feeling even if there is no Gulag and there is no shooting. And many of us feel very uncomfortable with the changes in the society we live in the United States in the past several years where for us there is no Gulag, no shooting, no being swept away with out charges.

Social contracts ought to be available in a machine readable form which allows the (user) to know exactly what the rules are and to allow you set effective guidelines about I don’t go to spaces where people don’t treat me in ways that I consider to be crucial in my treatment.

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got (a profile) that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

This concept of a clean, well-lit space has resonated with me for years.

And thinking of it now, it reminds me of my first watch: a device that gave me a sense of control, a clean interface to something over which I might not be able to change, but I could at least learn to accommodate, to live with, to manage.

The current generation of wearable devices might give me more information, and the data it presents might even be smarter…but measuring its utility (as Google did in launching its wearables platform) in the number of times I won’t need to take my phone out of my pocket (or the ability to order pizza) is a less compelling emotional story than my first watch – which gave me control over time itself.

Will The iWatch Transmit or Receive?

I have no idea what Apple has planned for its iWatch, obviously. But knowing their history in carefully balancing consumer trust, privacy and experience on the one hand, and developer tools and flexibility on the other, I expect them to tackle this issue of control in an Apple-like way.

Now, clearly, an iWatch will receive. It will be a screen. And a few months ago I would have imagined that its primary purpose would be to offload push messaging, step tracking, heart rate monitoring, music controls and other functions from the phone to the wrist. (And all of these things will likely be true).

But there’s potentially another paradigm in place – one that will be recognized by those who think long and hard about beacons. Because in addition to being another screen, data capture device and interface controller, I think the real value of an iWatch could come from someplace else.

Because what if, much like beacons, the iWatch was less a receiving screen and instead was more like a broadcaster? What if your watch was, like a beacon, a way to signal to the world around you: “I’m here, and here are the permissions I’m giving you, here are the rules of my being in this space, and if I choose to I’ll share my identity or let you send me messages and communicate.”

In this view, an iWatch (and other future wearables) shouldn’t just be a screen programmed to receive.

It’s a wearable form of identity and intent.

It lets the world know what you want to do today, what kinds of friends you want to say hello to, what kind of relationship you want with the store or the gym, what kind of cashless transactions you want to participate in, and what your rules are for clean, well-lit rooms.

Power, connection, control, a sense of self, a tool to shift the balance from the broadcaster back to the receiver. And maybe it will look cool too.

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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

SparkCompass
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?