Intro to BLE, Beacons, & iBeacon
The Vox – The Voice of Mobile: Episode 3
When Apple officially launched iOS 7, they also included a software interface called iBeacon, which has gotten a lot of press in recent months.
Here at BestFit, we’ve actually been working with Low Energy Bluetooth beacon technology for the past couple of years. We’ll be doing a mini series with The Vox to help you get acquainted. Today is Part 1: The Origin of Bluetooth, Intro to Beacons and iBeacon. I’m a history buff, so we’re going to start there.
Q: Where did the name “Bluetooth” come from?
“Bluetooth” got its name from the 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who was responsible for uniting warring factions in modern day Scandinavia. So, the inventors of Bluetooth technology named it after him because their technology would allow unrelated products and industries to connect, collaborate, and synchronize, just like King Harold united nations so long ago.
Q: What is Low Energy Bluetooth and how is it different from Classic Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances. It uses 2.4 Ghz short range radio frequency, just like your old cordless phone and microwave. It was designed for mobile devices, security, and personal networks.
Bluetooth 4.0 (also known as Bluetooth Smart) was released in the early 2000’s, when Classic Bluetooth was seven years old. This version of Bluetooth contains the spec that’s been buzzing in the news lately: Low Energy Bluetooth. It’s also called Bluetooth LE, or simply, BLE.
The main difference between BLE and Classic Bluetooth is that BLE uses much less power and is designed to be simpler and less expensive. It was also created specifically for use in close proximities.
Just last month, The Bluetooth Special Interest Group announced they adopted Bluetooth 4.1, reflecting the growth and changes they’ve seen in the market, which will greatly improve usability. The Bluetooth SIG says they estimate their product shipments to hit 4.5 billion in the next five years, alone!
Q: Why is BLE a big deal?
With BLE, a mobile user can navigate and interact with specific areas, thanks to low-cost signal emitters called “beacons.” These are small wireless devices that transmit signals to your personal device, and trigger custom behaviors.
Beacons can be leveraged to achieve rough indoor navigation at a very low cost. BLE takes geofencing and indoor navigation to a whole new level. While geofences merely sense a user’s presence, 10 to 15 beacons placed roughly 10 feet apart could create a “mesh network.” The network could detect a customer with a high level of precision indoors.
Q: Why is iBeacon important?
As of today, the iBeacon spec is currently under development by Apple. This software interface will allow any iOS device with a Bluetooth 4.0 chip inside it to know its proximity to other BLE devices, and to communicate directly with them. Apple doesn’t own BLE technology. They simply built a protocol, which helps simplify the communication between their own products and the Internet of Things. iBeacon allows you to communicate with nearby beacons without communicating with the app directly, so the app doesn’t run in the background wasting power.
These stats will help you understand just how powerful iBeacon could potentially be:
Every iOS device since the iPhone 4s and iPad 3rd generation can become an iBeacon receiver or transmitter, once configured.
TechCrunch estimates there are 170-190 million iOS devices already in the wild which have the right hardware and are running iOS7, which renders them capable of being iBeacons.
Q: What makes BLE better than other Location Technologies?
1) Easy Updates
Beacons can be easily updated after they’ve been deployed, and can be used for years as new software features are developed and pushed to them, remotely. Alternatively, the hardware is inexpensive enough that it can just be recycled, and you can start fresh.
2) Battery Life
Today, a beacon can last up to two years on a single watch battery, even when the device is constantly on.
3) Key Advantages over GPS & WiFi
BLE offers some key advantages Over GPS and WiFi technologies. A GPS with Wi-Fi technology (which some department stores rely upon to track the locations of their customers) isn’t a very accurate location based service indoors, even when you CAN acquire a signal.
Additionally, security is often lax with the majority of WiFi systems, so determining a user’s identity is typically problematic.
BLE Beacons don’t give out GPS coordinates, unless programmed to do so. Instead, they provide identifiers (UDIDs), which help the iBeacon SDK within an iPhone or other Bluetooth 4.0 capable device understand the context of the world around it. BLE Beacons provide an easy way for an app to determine how far away these mobile devices are.
Q: Do you think Near Field Communication (NFC) will go out of style?
It’s a fact that BLE Beacons have a much greater range than NFC capable devices, which only work in very close proximities. The optimal range for NFC is less than 4 centimeters. Furthermore, devices must also be equipped with an NFC chip in order to take advantage of it.
Lately, a lot of people have been claiming BLE will “kill” NFC. It’s true more devices on the market today have Bluetooth 4.0 capability than they do NFC chips. However, we believe that these two technologies can complement one another, and actually work well in tandem, especially when it comes to Android.
Q: Which devices can be bought today which support BLE?
For Apple, this means any iOS device that has the Low Energy Bluetooth protocol built in: iPhone 4S and higher, a fifth-generation iPod, an iPad 3 or an iPad mini – all of these can “talk” with BLE Beacons.
At least 30% of Android devices will support a BLE system 12-18 month from now, as users gradually upgrade to the latest OS. It’s expected Window’s upcoming update will include Bluetooth 4.0.
Our team at BestFit Mobile has been working with Low Energy Bluetooth for the past two years, before the word “iBeacon” ever hit the media radar. We’re here to help forge your BLE solution. Please visit bestfitmobile.com/iBeacon for additional iBeacon resources!
For more information about this topic, you can download our free whitepaper, and follow @bestmobile on Twitter for our news updates.