NOVEMBER 11, 2019
8 min read
Every day we stuck in our phones for hours reading, playing, surfing on the Internet, and working in different mobile applications. Brands figured this out a while ago and started to develop digital loyalty programs that stay in mobile apps of users. Companies send push notifications and inbox messages to keep individuals updated on the latest news and updates.
What if I tell you that you don’t necessarily need a mobile application installed for customers to receive your messages? You only need a mobile phone with turned on Bluetooth and geolocation tracking functionality to send information to it. The solution is called Beacons.
Beacons are like a tiny radio that sends an identifier to everybody who can receive it. It is a fascinating technology in the modern world that is used for marketing, indoor tracking, and indoor mapping.
As product managers, we need to know about such technologies and solutions because we can use them to solve customer challenges or help them achieve goals. In this article, I want to talk about the benefits of Beacon technology and explain why it is worth considering and how it can improve your product or fix some of the internal processes as we did at Dashdevs.
What is Beacon technology and how does it work?
Apple was the first company that brought beacons to the public in 2013 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Beacon is a comparatively small device that transmits a signal about itself all around. As I’ve mentioned before, it is like a radio, or it is usually compared with a lighthouse that is repeatedly broadcasting out an identifier. It can’t get any personal information from a device or modify it for a user. The beacon device itself contains a CPU, radio module, and batteries that can last for up to 5 years.
How does Beacon technology work? — Depending on the manufacturer, beacons can be device-dependent or device agnostic. In other words, it can work only with one manufacturer like Apple and send the identifier to iPads and iPhones exclusively, or send the unified signal that is recognized by any device. A popular device-agnostic example is Eddystone that was introduced by Google in 2015 as an evolution of its prototypical UriBeacon technology. The Eddystone Beacon format can collaborate with any BLE supporting hardware - iOS, Android, or any other.
Here are some terms that we need to know to understand how Beacon tracking technology works.
- TX power stands for ‘Transmission Power’ and identifies how strong is the signal of the beacon. The maximum distance now is up to 70 meters, but if you want it to communicate only with nearby devices, you need to reduce the TX Power. A good example is if your beacon notifies about some must-see object in the museum, you need to make the TX power to the five-mile mark, so only people in close proximity to the object could receive it.
- Signal Interval is how often the beacon tracking device sends the identifier. This parameter is configurable. For instance, Apple suggests using ten signals per second, but keep in mind that a smaller interval means that the battery will run down faster. However, decreasing the signal interval is correlated with the speed of moving objects that you need to catch.
- BLE stands for ‘Bluetooth Low Energy’, but you may also have heard Bluetooth LE or Bluetooth Smart names. Today we use Bluetooth technology everywhere since our mobile devices communicate with Apple watches or with audio systems in our cars. In such small devices as watches, the size of the battery is really crucial, and therefore manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to reduce energy consumption. BLE is a method of short-range communication in the 2.4 GHz ISM band, and it stays in sleep mode if the connection is not initiated.
- RSSI stands for the ‘Received Signal Strength Indicator’. It is another signal parameter that indicates how good is the connection between the device and the beacon expressed for measurement (in dBm).
- ToF stands for ‘Time of Flight’ and measures the distance between beacon technology solutions and devices based on the amount of time required by the signal to get to the gadget and come back.
These are the main parameters that should be configured to make your mobile beacon technology work. Google, Apple, and other Bluetooth beacon manufacturers provide users with convenient dashboards where all these can be set up.
Beacon tracking technology for indoor positioning systems
Beacons burst into the Internet of Things (IoT) as soon as they’ve appeared on the market. The IoT itself unites computing devices into one network, thus allowing them to exchange data without human interaction. Smart houses are the most well-known examples of such IoT systems. The idea of IoT caught the interest of manufacturers and factories. They’ve started to use it for automation and improvement, so the IoT information technology transformed into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Beacons are often used for the creation of Digital twins to ensure control and process improvement.
Additionally, IoT beacon technology can help to define the position of the object with the use of proximity, trilateration, and fingerprinting. Let’s look closer at how it works.
- Proximity — beacon sends the signal with the information telling how close it is to the device.
- Trilateration — the location of the device is defined based on its position according to three different beacons that are determined by RSSI or ToF.
- Fingerprinting — all the floor is divided into zones, and each of them has its own identification.
Manufacturers start to use Beacon information technology to track the positions of machines, people, and goods during the process of production. Moreover, it can efficiently guide people to the place they need, since it can be integrated with building maps. In this scenario, Beacon sensor technology triumphs over the Global Positioning System (GPS) because the latter gives low results for indoor tracking. Nearly all Digital twins solution providers use it for their products.
The overview of use cases for Beacons
But not only manufacturers realize the advantages of beacon-based technology. Startups, as well as medium-sized and large-scale enterprises start to leverage it to streamline the processes of interaction with customers and the process of producing goods. The following examples are:
- Advertising: Beacons can send messages to the devices that are within easy reach. Lots of retail companies start to utilize the beacon marketing method for the promotion of their business in malls and supermarkets. They send a notification to people who are walking near their shops, offering them some goods or services.
- Help the blind: One of the non-profit organizations will install around two hundred Beacon Bluetooth devices on the whole territory of Yonge Street in Toronto. Each beacon ID has a unique location-specific message, and when the signal is picked up by BlindSquare, the message is automatically delivered. Ilkka Pirttimaa is the inventor of the solution that allows people to hear audio descriptions of everything that is around them.
- Education: Beacon mobile technology empowers museums to provide visitors with interesting information about the exhibited objects. Philips Museum (The Netherlands), National Slate Museum (Wales), and the Brooklyn Museum (New York) implement Beacon platforms to improve user experience in their institutions.
Dashdevs experience as Beacon technology example
Dashdevs is a custom software development company with over 150 employees and more than 500 projects delivered to clients worldwide. In order to develop and test mobile applications, we need to have a variety of devices from different manufacturers such as phones (Apple, Google, Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, Meizu), tablets (Samsung, LG) and iPads, as well as watches (iWatches, Samsung Gear). In addition, we have different hardware devices for specific digital products that we build, for example, hardware scanners, portable printers, glasses, and so on. All of this equipment is distributed across five floors. As a company, Dashdevs had a list of headaches:
- Control the position of the device within the building, since there are dozens of projects going on simultaneously. The usual case is that a quality assurance engineer takes the gadget to a software developer and leaves it there because the developer needs to debug an issue on the real device. Unfortunately, too often, they forget to bring the device back.
- Find the device that is out of battery. Some mobile devices can be discharged and just lie on the table under the papers. Another case is rarely-used devices (like old mobile devices, hardware, portative printers). If somebody forgets to bring them back to the storage, it becomes nearly impossible to find it.
- Establish control over picking and stealing. Devices are small, and anyone can steal it really quickly, just putting it in the pocket.
Our Research and Development department decided to use digital Beacon technology to solve all these issues. Consequently, we’ve bought many beacons and stations, set them up on all the devices that we’ve wanted to track, and registered them in the dashboard, adding model, platform, OS version, code, and beacon MAC address. The next step was to configure control stations on the floors, enabling position tracking with the use of trilateration.
In addition, we’ve created a dashboard and an online map that shows the locations devices in real-time.
It is just the first stage of the device tracking implementation that gives us more control over devices and simplifies the search. The next stage is the configuration of notifications about the devices. Mobile Beacon technology can cover the following scenarios:
- Notify the responsible when the device is on the first floor. It means that somebody wants to take it out of the office, and it’s forbidden according to the internal policies.
- Notify when the device stays on the table without movement for four days. It means that somebody forgot to bring it back to the test device storage.
- Notify when the beacon lost its signal for more than 10 minutes.
We have more plans and more requests for the improvement of device tracking management that we are going to implement and will write about that in our future blog posts.
Generally speaking, Beacons is a rather simple and useful technology for commercial and personal use. Each month we receive at least one request for the development of the digital ecosystem with the use of Beacon technology for the Retail, Fitness and Health, Fintech, and Logistics fields. The variety of Beacon manufacturers helps to minimize the cost of the infrastructure and simplify the integration with existing production processes.
The Dashdevs R&D team has all the necessary expertise and knowledge to build a reliable and functional solution for your company time- and cost-efficiently. Don’t hesitate to contact one of our managers and share the details of your business needs.