Bluetooth beacons, or iBeacons, have been on my radar for the last year or so. There is something undeniably cool about iBeacon technology – perhaps because it provides a bridge between the real, physical world and the virtual worlds that we inhabit through our computers and smartphones. Bluetooth beacons can form part of the infrastructre that makes up the Internet of Things.
So what is a Bluetooth beacon, or iBeacon? It’s basically a device that transmits a signal over Bluetooth LE. The signal carries a small packet of data (known as an advertising packet) which contains some basic information about the device itself, such as indentification and transmission power level. The term iBeacon is Apple’s trademark moniker for the technology.
Beacon signals can be detected by a Bluetooth receiver – usually a smartphone. Apps running on the smartphone listen out for specific beacon identifiers and proximity to those beacons can then trigger events within the app.
Perhaps the most talked about application for iBeacon technology is proximity marketing. This manifests itself as notifcations that appear on a smartphone in response to a user’s location. As you walk past a branch of Starbucks, for example, your phone might alert you to their special offer of the day, maybe even with a coupon attached. As with all push marketing there is a fine line between providing timely, relevant offers to your customers, and bombarding them with spam.
Indoor positioning systems
A more practical application of Bluetooth beacons is to facilitate indoor positioning systems. GPS technology is unreliable inside buildings and undercover, so iBeacon hardware can be used to create a system for navigating indoors. Systems like these are already used in places like hospitals and warehouses but these tend to be closed systems built on proprietary hardware. The beauty of using iBeacons to create indoor positioning systems is that they are exposed to smartphones, making them well suited to public areas such as shopping centres and airports.
Challenges and misconceptions
There is a widely held belief that it is the Bluetooth beacons themselves that push notifications out to a user’s smartphone but this is a misconception. Beacons are simply not that clever. It is the apps that run on our smartphones and the cloud services to which they connect that do all the heavy lifting.
In a typical scenario the end user’s smartphone is running an app which listens for signals from a specific set of iBeacons. On detecting a signal, the app can determine the device’s proximity to the beacon based on the strength of the signal received relative to the transmission power level data that is broadcast in the advertising packet. If the device is within a given distance of the Bluetooth beacon then the app will “phone home” to a cloud service, sending information about the beacon signal and the GPS location of the smartphone. The cloud service will respond with a push notification to the app. The notifcation’s payload might even contain a web link or coupon
Another misconception is that as beacons proliferate we will all be subject to an increasing number of proximity marketing messages. This isn’t necessarily true. In order to work as described above, several factors need to be in play. Firstly the end user must have the specific app installed and running on their smartphone and the app must have permission to issue notications. Obviously the phone must have Bluetooth enabled in order to detect the beacon’s signal. And if the app is to communicate with the cloud, then some kind internet connection is required – either over Wi-Fi or via the mobile network.
A survey conducted in 2014 by the Direct Marketing Association suggests that almost a third of UK smartphone users have never enabled push notifications on their device. When asked how they would react if unhappy with the content of push notificatios, 78% of respondents said that they would simply delete the app, or disable its notifications.
Ultimately the end user has control over an app’s ability to push notifcations to their phone. So although there is no doubt that the potential for proximity marketing is increasing, the ecosystem that it relies upon is fragile. Overloading it with spam could easily cause it to break.