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How BLE Beacons work

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Beacons are small, battery-powered, always-on devices that use BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) technology to transmit signals to devices, such as smartphones and tablets, within a range of about 100 meters. BLE beacons are one-way hardware transmitters aimed at detecting nearby devices in order to send them messages; while the target devices do not send information back to the beacons.

According to Patrick Leddy, CEO and founder of mobile marketing firm Pulsate, beacons are like lighthouses: “They send out a signal. They are unaware of themselves and any other devices around them; (…) They are just sending out these BLE packets and saying ‘Hey, I’m here, see me, take action if you want.” Bluetooth Low Energy is a wireless personal area network technology used for transmitting data over short distances. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a part of Bluetooth 4.0 specification. As the name implies, it is designed for low energy consumption and cost, while maintaining a communication range similar to that of its predecessor, Classic Bluetooth. The main differences with the classic Bluetooth are:

Power Consumption: BLE has low energy requirements. It can last up to 3 years on a single coin cell battery.

Lower Cost: BLE is 60-80% cheaper than traditional Bluetooth.

Application: BLE is ideal for simple applications requiring small periodic transfers of data. Classic Bluetooth is preferred for more complex applications requiring consistent communication and more data throughput.

Bluetooth Beacons use BLE proximity sensing to transmit a universally unique identifier picked up by a compatible app or operating system (depending on the Beacons platform, e.g. Apple vs Google) Bluetooth beacons differ from some other location-based technologies as the broadcasting device, as described before, is only a one-way transmitter to the receiving smartphone or receiving device. The identifier and several bytes sent with it can be used to determine the device’s physical location, track customers, or trigger a location-based action on the device such as a check-in on social media or a push notification. In particular, multiple beacons can be positioned around an area, such as inside a store to broadcast relevant information to portable devices within their proximity. Mobile device owners can then react to, engage with, or use the information for indoor, turn-by-turn navigation and store discounts, among other things.

Beacons platforms/protocols

The two biggest players in the beacon market are Apple and Google, and they both have their own standardized BLE beacon implementations. Apple’s iBeacon was the first technology standard for BLE beacon platform. The company introduced the technology during its summer 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference, when it added iBeacon support to iOS 7. The iBeacon platform lets developers build mobile apps that can receive transmissions, such as location-aware notifications, from iBeacon-compatible devices. On Dec. 6, 2013, Apple installed iBeacons in all of its U.S. retail stores.

In July 2015, Google announced Eddystone, its BLE beacon technology. Eddystone is similar to iBeacon, but unlike Apple’s implementation, Google’s is open source, and it is available on GitHub. Both iOS and Android users can receive messages sent via the iBeacon and Eddystone platforms. In particular, according to Errett Kroeter, vice president of marketing for Bluetooth SIG. Marketers, users “do not need to worry about buying an iBeacon versus an Eddystone beacon” because they work across the two platforms. However, some differences between Apple’s and Google’s implementations do exist. Google’s beacon platform can transmit URLs to mobile devices, which can then be opened in a mobile browser. This feature coincides with Google’s philosophy of the mobile browser as an all-purpose app. While Apple’s iBeacon implementation interacts only with mobile apps on users’ smartphones.

Google and Apple do not make their own beacons. A variety of vendors manufacture and sell beacons based on one or both implementation standards, including Aruba, Estimote, Gimbal, and Radius Networks. Retailers are among the earliest BLE beacon adopters, and are the sector in which the possible impacts are huge and partially already visible. The current main functionalities can be classified into 2 main areas:

  1. Customer experience and communication (Consumer insights, interactions, and marketing in-store based on consumer location and product in proximity; Determining optimal product positioning, digital fitting rooms, and augmented reality fitting; Personal lifestyle planners and purchasing assistants (based on contextualized dietary, exercise, and health requirements);
  2. Strategic asset management (Sensor technology to track and geo-position promotional end aisle displays);

Customers are also more likely to get the attention they want for their marketing messages when they use beacons. And the geo-targeted messages beacons transmit can increase the “open rate” of mobile marketing messages significantly. In fact, people usually open standard push notifications about 14 percent of the time, but they open messages transmitted by a beacon 53 percent of the time, because they are more immediately relevant, according to mobile advertising firm Beintoo.

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