Beacons: what do they have to tell (you)? (part 1)

iBeacons are sometime on the market now but it doesn’t seem to be all roses. Read in this part how they came into existence and how they work.


Cupertino, June 2013 – On the annual Apple WWDC event keynote Tim Cook and his companions showed traditionally with a lot of enthusiasm and superlatives the latest gadgets of the latest iOS 7 controlling system. During the two-hour show I looked out for the resumptive “SDK feature listing” slides, because that’s where the practical innovations are listed. The bigger the name of the feature, the more important. It was there that the first “iBeacons” were presented to us. 

Apple WWDC 2013

The origin of beacons

Developers started to speculate immediately on social channels how the technology would work and what the possible innovative applications could be. Soon they figured out that with an iBeacon you can define how far a person with an iPhone was. Afterwards it turned out to be fairly simple: in the iBeacon sits a Bluetooth 4 Low Energy (LE) chip and this transmits a signal. The iPhone/iPad has a chip as well and this one receives the signal. The iPhone measures the quality of the received signal through the Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) constantly: the closer you are at the beacon, the better the signal. The further you are, the more noise and hence the worse the signal. On the basis of this you can measure the distance and determine “discrete zones” i.e. someone stands very close, a little bit further, far away, very far away or out of reach (theoretically up to 70 meters).

With an application (which is a conditio sine qua non) on the iPhone you can communicate with iBeacons, even link actions to zones or a specific distance. Thus, it is possible, for example, to put an iBeacon during the holiday season in the sparkling wine rayon. If a potential customer stands in the neighborhood, he gets immediately buy-5-get-1-free-promotion of a specific brand. The buyer gets an icon on his ‘lock screen’ or an encouraging message, even if the application isn’t active or in background modus. If the customer then ‘swipes’ the icon or presses on the push notification, the promotion appears. A good mobile application doesn’t just show a standard promotion, but a more relevant action on the basis of previous purchases, favorite brand, taste, …. In short, the app knows your preferences and links those with distance data and visualization.

You can turn around the detection concept as well by, for example, put the iBeacon in your car. Get out with your iPhone and do you get in a ‘far’-zone? Then the parking-app will save via the gps-signal (geolocation) the correct location of the car. And that’s how your iPhone knows exactly where you parked your car, without complex actions.

By combining multiple iBeacons (at least 4), Indoor Location Based Tracking is possible. On the basis of triangulation you can detect in real time a reasonably precise location of a person. The more iBeacons in one room, the more precise the appliance and his user can be detected. Hereby a good calibration and configuration of the iBeacon is essential so this is time-consuming.

iBeacons can also include other sensors next to distance detection. Acceleromerty (movement) and temperature sensors occur often. Today there are even iBeacons that you can put together yourself and provide with humidity sensors, barometers, compasses, infra-red detectors, gyroscopes,… There sensors send their data via the Bluetooth-module to the smartphone. Different combinations are possible for example; are you in a radius of 8 m, at a temperature of 28°C and low humidity? Than you get a message that the plant in the front porch in direct sunlight is in urgent need of water!



Conditions that make those iBeacons successful

To begin with is a smartphone with Bluetooth 4LE designated. Apple has considered this well and foresees, already since the iPhone 4S /iPad 2 that all their mobile appliances are iBeacon compatible. Android is a different story: only appliances with Android 4.3 or later can detect iBeacons. Mostly those are the more expensive/better appliances which came on the market about 2 years ago.

Most iBeacons operate on batteries, they can be easily hang up everywhere. The durability of the batteries depends on two things: the signal distance that needs to be bridged and the frequency of the pulse signal. Are both maximized? Then it is possible that the button cells has been used up after 4 weeks. But with a good configuration and energy saving techniques they can last today one year or more. When you want to work without batteries, you will need to foresee an external adapter.

Another tricky issue: Bluetooth is still a radio signal. This signal can be disrupted by conditions of use. The 2.4GHz signal is absorbed by water and thus also by people. Concretely this means that the distance detection weakens as people walk through the signal. Also WIFI hotspots and even microwaves, with their electromagnetic radiation, disrupt the RSSI measurement for the distance measurement of the iBeacons. 

Next to technological also functional limitations

No application = no iBeacon magic. In other words: as a trader you can only benefit from iBeacons as the end-user your applications downloads, opens and trust you to use the location services. In addition, of course, also Bluetooth has to be turned on on his smartphone. Even though more and more peripheral devices work with Bluetooth 4LE and the impact on the battery is limited, still a large part of potential users are excluded.

Traders can buy iBeacons on a number of websites and place them in their shops. But this is not the end of the story. An excellent configuration of iBeacons is essential and has to be done meticulously. This is often a devious process, because iBeacons need to be in the neighborhood for a lot of configuration systems if you want to configure them by smartphone, tablet or computer.

iBeacons work on the basis of a unique number (UUID), and some other numbers like Major and Minor. An iBeacon transmits these, so your software knows to which beacon it is exactly and then can link to certain actions. Allocate a UUID is not difficult if you hold one beacon in esteem. But when you have fifty of those in the neighborhood, than you need to tag directly to know which beacon you are configuring. The software sees them all and you cannot always briefly put the beacon off.

Also the maintenance should not be underestimated. Certainly on locations where there are dozens of iBeacons. You need to check regularly if they still hang there (sometimes people take them away out of curiosity), work and if the batteries are not low. In order to be able to do this, you need to have contact with the iBeacon via a configuration-application. When you replace an iBeacon, it has to have the same settings as the old one. Hence a good inventory and a clear overview is necessary.
The perfect example is The ‘iBeacon Brooklyn museum’-project where they enrolled no less than 150 beacons on an area of 4,65 ha and it did not go as planned. 

By using UUID’s, potential security problems touch the surface. Security experts speak of ‘iBeacon spoofing & piggybacking’.

Spoofing means that you can clone an iBeacon: another beacon bearing the same UUID. Some manufacturers even deliver their beacons with the same UUID and that constitutes a danger. Because when you do not adapt this beacon to a unique UUID, someone else can buy the same iBeacon, download your application and trigger the linked activities (such as actions and promotions) to these iBeacons. This without being physically present in your shop. It is not difficult to generate an UUID. People with bad intentions should then carry out about 500 million attempts to find the correct number.

Piggybacking is even more dangerous. Imagine: you have a shop and you use iBeacons to personalize promotions for your customers. However, a competitor gets hold of your iBeacon UUID’s via a scanner application and integrates those in his how application. Result? Each time a customer enters your shop and they have installed the application of your competitor, they get obviously the more beneficial promotion form the shop of your competitor!

Luckily are iBeacon development platforms like Estimote informed and they build more and more specific security systems to prevent such abuse.

The answer from Google: Eddystone Open source beacons

We talk about iBeacons for a while now. But last year Google came up with a new standard open source beacon. Also on Bluetooth LE and one that works cross platform: thus both on Android as on iOS devices. Not really new, because current iBeacons can also be read out with Android smartphones via certain frameworks like Estimote and Radius. Het biggest difference lies in the operating principle. Eddystone beacons work like AR tags: after detection by the smartphone they send an url that starts a webpage or specific application. Eddystone beacons are much more intertwined with the new Google Nearby Api and made security and configuration a lot easier. Existing Bluetooth LE beacons can become Eddystone compatible with an easy firmware update.


In our next post we will go deeper into the application.

Intrigued by iBeacons and how you can set them up?

Contact TheReference/Mobile today! 


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