What you need to know about using Bluetooth beacons

Apple's iBeacons technology is merely the start of a new approach to location-aware apps

2015 will be the year of the beacon, as companies of all sorts begin deploying these Bluetooth nodes that (at a mininum) tell a smartphone precisely where it is so that an app can act on the specific location. Apple's iBeacons protocol, quietly released last year as part of iOS 7, has created a cottage industry of beacon makers and test deployments in retail stores, stadiums, and more as companies explore how they might increase customer engagement, sales, and service through these devices.

But the technology goes far beyond Apple's iBeacons, or at least it can. And its uses far surpass the one that has grabbed most of the media attention: tracking shoppers to provide tailored sales pitches and coupons at specific locations of stores.

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For example, your iPhone or an iPad loaned to you at check-in may use a beacon to show on a map where you are and provide directions to where you want to go -- in your language. Your Galaxy S5 may use a beacon in your car to know it's your vehicle and send an unlock signal to it. Your Nexus 5 may use a beacon to determine what section of a grocery store you're in and see if anything on your shopping list is in that area, so you don't forget it.

You can get similar information from GPS, but only in areas that have a clear view of the sky to receive satellite signals. Cellular tower triangulation can also display your location, but accuracy can be as wide as a half-mile area. For a decade, RFID technology has covered some of the promised beacons usage, but RFID requires specialized scanners and much more effort to get a read, so its uses have remained limited.

Beacons use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a technology built into iPhones and iPads since 2010 (and Macs since 2012) and in many higher-end Android devices since 2013. You don't need a special reader, only the device you already have. That's why beacons are very likely to fulfill the early location-aware dreams that RFID could not.

Simple beacons and iBeacons provide the basic foundation
At least a dozen companies market beacons that use BLE radios to detect other nearby BLE devices (such as your iPhone) and send a unique user ID (UUID) to the other device. These hockey puck-size beacons cost as little as $20, use batteries that can last a year or more, and can be affixed almost anywhere. Basic beacon prices should quickly fall to $10, says Roman Foeckl, CEO of Onyx Beacons, so they'll be affordable to install en masse.

The iPhone or iPad does the heavy lifting. iOS tracks the beacons it encounters and queries Apple's UUID database to see what apps the beacon is associated to, then alerts the app (if installed on the iPhone or iPad) that a relevant beacon has been found. (The apps must implement Apple's iBeacons APIs to communicate beacon status with the OS.)

This is a key distinction from, say, GPS coordinates: Beacons aren't about sending location coordinates but about self-identifying. It's up to you what your app does once it knows you're near a specific beacon. You decide the context you assign to that beacon.

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