Bluetooth beacons: Everything you need to know

Here at Pointr, we specialize in working with Bluetooth® technologies and we find that many curious individuals ask us about what these really are, how they work, what they enable businesses, workplaces and more to do, and everything in between. So we have put together an article on everything you need to know about these fantastic devices.

It’s a long read, so grab a cup of tea and enjoy!

What is a Bluetooth beacon?

A Bluetooth beacon is a small device (approx 3cm x 5cm x 2cm) that constantly sends out radio signals to nearby smartphones and tablets, containing a small amount of data. The signal strength and time between each signal can be configured to achieve a desired area of coverage. Mobile apps can listen for the signals being broadcast and, when they hear a relevant signal, can trigger an action on your phone. Note that beacons only operate/talk in one direction (i.e. they can broadcast data but cannot read things off your phone). For the majority of current beacons, the data that they transmit is hard coded and doesn’t change frequently (i.e. set it once when configuring the beacon) and they rely on the device which is listening to do something intelligent with the data – in the future this is likely to start changing.

How do Bluetooth beacons work?

Beacons work using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) which is a version of the more common Bluetooth protocol, designed to use very little power and send less data – typically 1-20% of standard Bluetooth power and at 15-50% of the speed. They are often powered by batteries and as such the performance/battery life needs careful balancing to suit the application as the battery life can be anywhere from 1 month to 2-3 years (there are beacons using USB/mains power or solar panels so last much longer, and some beacons are coming out which are built into lights or light sockets). The beacons themselves are typically stuck to walls/ceilings or hidden in other objects since you can detect a beacon up to 70m away with no obstructions (depending on the power level).

How can beacon signal or range vary?

Whilst Beacons can have up to 70m range with no obstructions, this can drop significantly through walls which are made with metal or brick (though thin/stud walls have a much smaller effect).

In addition to the potential range of Bluetooth Low Energy, most protocols also operate with three ranges of distance: far, near and immediate – and a device can do something different at each range.

  • Far – this is designed so that your device can do something when you can just about hear a beacon (i.e. walking past a store)
  • Near – this is designed so your device can do something once you are in the same room as a beacon (i.e. walking into a store)
  • Immediate – this is designed so your device can do something once you are virtually touching a beacon (i.e. touching an advert or checkout in a shop)

The signals also allows apps to recognize whether you are getting closer or further away, hence offer you a welcome/goodbye message as you shop, or even understand which parts of the shop you interacted with. Remember that this processing would have to be done by the app as a beacon only transmits data and cannot receive a signal from your phone – this information could however be transmitted back to the shop via a data/Wi-Fi connection.

To learn more about Bluetooth signals and ranges, check out our full length post on topic by clicking here.

Do beacons work with iPhones/Android/ Windows phones?

Yes all modern phones can support Bluetooth Low Energy but you have to turn on Bluetooth for anything to happen.

On iOS 7 and above (iPhone 4s and above, iPad 3rd/4th Gen/Mini/Air, iPod Touch 5th Gen and above), the phone can constantly scan for Bluetooth Low Energy devices and wake up relevant apps when they come within range of a relevant beacon (even if they are closed).

On Android devices there is no operating-system management of beacons and the apps must scan for Bluetooth Low Energy devices themselves. This means the apps must be running (can be in the background) all the time and hence use up more battery (not very much).

On Windows and Blackberry devices there are varying levels of compatibility but most modern phones over the last few years support Bluetooth Low Energy in a similar way to Android (e.g. Windows phones require the Lumia Cyan update).

Hey! Will Bluetooth Low Energy drain my battery?

In the same way as Bluetooth Low Energy uses 1-20% of the power of full Bluetooth in the beacon, it uses much less power on your phone. Leaving Bluetooth running on a Bluetooth Low Energy enabled phone should typically use 1-3% of a phone battery over the course of a full day – though if you are using standard Bluetooth at the same time (e.g. leaving Bluetooth headphones connected) then this can increase. We've got some more information on how Bluetooth can impact your smartphone battery here.

iBeacon vs BLE beacon - what's the difference?

Though the names suggest some major differences, there's actually very little difference between the definitions of ;iBeacon' and a BLE beacons. iBeacon technology is a protocol devised by Apple that aims to standardize the data broadcast by Bluetooth beacons. In other words, iBeacon is an Apple flavour, running on top of core Bluetooth Low Energy technology and beacons. Any Bluetooth beacon can be regarded as an iBeacon, if they advertise according to Apple’s standards. Currently Apple doesn’t make beacon hardware and expects beacon vendors to adopt their iBeacon requirements. There is a chance that Apple may release their own iBeacon hardware, and at this point a difference may emerge – some people say the iWatch is effectively an intelligent Bluetooth beacon (technically true) though not in the form most people would expect it.

Will all beacons work with my app?

All beacons transmit data in the same format and so are very interchangeable, though certain parts of the transmission are specific to certain manufacturers and hence the app should be configured for a particular beacon. In order for the app to respond as intended it needs to know exactly what beacon it is listening for and each manufacturer will have a set of tools available to help with this process. When conducting a Pointr installation, we always strive to use the same or complementary beacon types, and factor any existing hardware that the customer may already have in place too, such as particular access points. As the majority of beacons are similar and beam similar data, we prioritize things such as easy of installation and battery life (as this means fewer hardware refreshes are required over time).

What does Apple’s iBeacon technology do?

iBeacon lets iPhones/iPads/iPods constantly scan for nearby Bluetooth devices. When it identifies a device, like a beacon, it can wake up an app on the phone (even if the app is not running). Developers can make their apps responsive to iBeacon by using Apple’s Core Location APIs (application programming interfaces) in iOS. iBeacon can also be implemented into Passbook such that relevant messages/offers appear in your Passbook as you encounter specific beacons or Bluetooth devices (though an App needs to be installed which recognizes the detected beacon).

How does Bluetooth beacon tracking work?

Bluetooth beacons can transmit basic pieces of data to an app, which in turn, when corresponding with more than one beacon, can triangulate a user's position. Stringing a combination of location 'pings' together can then enable an app to effectively 'track' a user as they move through a beacon-enabled indoor environment such as a retail store or an airport. Depending on the app, it's then possible to monitor user locations and alert if they're in an area they shouldn't be, record journeys for future analysis (such as in a retail context, where a store may wish to know which areas of the shopfloor are being visited less than others).

However, for a variety of reasons, even using multiple beacons isn't always effective for calculating a user's whereabouts in an indoor location. For example, while a group of BLE beacons may be able to pinpoint a user at one point, they would not be able to work out the direction that user was facing, and would struggle to keep up with a moving device. This is where Pointr's Deep Location® Platform comes in, with numerous unique technological calculations leveraged in order to bridge this gap and offer super accurate indoor positioning and indoor navigation.

Can beacons track a user with no other technology?

In a word, no. Beacons only transmit signal and do not receive data back - therefore, without any additional technology (most commonly a smartphone app) to make sense of these signals, no tracking is possible. Additionally, BLE beacons are designed to be as efficient as possible in order to help them preserve battery, meaning that even if they were capable of sending and receiving data back from devices, they don't have the means with which to store it. 

Want to learn everything there is to know about indoor positioning? Download our guide.

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So where can I get a beacon from?

There are currently a number of beacon manufacturers out there, all offering a slightly different range of features, flexibility, reliability and battery life. Estimote and Kontakt are some of the more popular beacon manufacturers and they offer a good SDK (software package) which allows you to configure and play around with the beacon, whilst also offering pretty decent battery life. You can get super small beacons, super long life beacons or waterproof/sturdy beacons from a quick search, you can even turn any Bluetooth Low Energy compatible phone into a beacon itself! Increasingly, the technology found in beacons is being replicated in other pieces of hardware, such as Wi-Fi access points or smart lighting - you might already have some beacon technology and not even realise it!

How much do beacons cost?

You can pick up a beacon for $15 or up to $35 depending on what features and battery life you want from it.

What businesses should invest in Bluetooth beacons?

There's no limit to what can be done with BLE beacons, and their inexpensive cost means that everyone from small retail stores through to huge locations like hospitals and airports can benefit enormously from investing in beacon technology.

At Pointr, we've worked with a large range of businesses and venues to make the most of beacon technology. We've helped retailers leverage indoor mapping and positional analytics to better understand where their customers are going and not going in their store. We've aided airlines and airports in improving their apps with indoor navigation to get their visitors to the correct gates quickly. We've empowered workplaces to keep their employees safe via indoor position contact tracking and improve efficiency by letting them know where they can meet easily and immediately.

What data do beacons send to phones?

Contrary to common understanding, beacons themselves transmit no meaningful data. Instead, they transmit short identifiers and it is the app that should make use of this information and do something useful. For example, an app can detect a short number broadcast by a beacon, then connect to internet to convert this number into a message, and trigger a push message on the phone. (Beacons can in theory send push messages without the internet but only of a few characters long). In short, beacons are dummy devices that advertise short identifiers, and it is the app that is responsible for doing something smart.

Technically speaking, beacons send a small stream of data containing a unique identifier and a small amount of customisable data. The identifier is what notifies an app to start listening and do something, while the data then gives some further information for processing. The identifier consists of three parts: a “UUID” which is typically the ID of the beacon vendor and a “Major” and “Minor” ID which are customisable and designed to signify different countries/regions/buildings/stores/rooms. The data is all transmitted unencrypted (by design) in a widely publicized format to ensure standardisation between manufacturers and platforms and as such can be spoofed. Apps need to understand this ‘feature’ to ensure nothing sensitive is transmitted through BLE and instead it should trigger another process which can be more secure.

What interference do Beacons cause?

Beacons do operate on the same frequency as some Wi-Fi signals (2.4GHz) and hence could cause interference, however they operate at lower power levels and transmit signals for very short periods of time – often for 1ms in a second (1000ms). As a result of this, even with many users simultaneously using Bluetooth, it is unlikely to have an effect on a Wi-Fi connection – there are loads of common household devices using this frequency band with much higher power levels and most of the time even they don’t have an effect. If the Wi-Fi connection is based on 5Ghz transmission then you will not get any interference at all.

What can I actually do with beacons?

This is where beacons get really interesting as you can do so many things with them, and the list keeps getting longer as people imagine new uses. Currently some of the working uses include:

  • Indoor positioning and navigation
  • Tracking of people or possessions
  • Location based advertisements or messages (for more on Bluetooth beacon advertising, click here)
  • Security and automatic locking/unlocking of a computer
  • Trigger requests for things like payments (note payments cannot be contained in BLE itself as it isn’t encrypted)

Where are Beacons used today?

Tens of implementations have been advertised in the last year, with the US leading the way in beacon integration. Marketing and loyalty drive the most common purposes at the moment, with some these examples:

  • Macy’s is rolling out beacons across their stores in the US, for in-store marketing and loyalty. 
  • Major League Baseball are using beacons in their ballparks to offer fans the ability to check in, and get additional content on their phones.
  • San Francisco airport is using beacons to help blind people navigate.
  • The Swan Centre in the UK became the first shopping mall to use beacons, which allowed them to organize some in-store campaigns for its visitors.
  • New Museum in NYC used beacons to give visitors a realistic minefield experience on their phones, where beacons became ‘virtual mines’.
  • BeHere app allows students to register attendance automatically with their phones in their pockets.
  • Google introduced ‘Physical Web’ which is also using BLE (not iBeacon), to enable users to interact with objects around them (e.g. A ZipCar car, a bus stop, vending machine or fridge at home) without an app by merely walking next to them.

For a full run-down of how beacons are enabling exciting marketing opportunities, check out our post on beacon marketing.

What's next for BLE beacon technology?

The last few years saw the inception of beacon applications which blend offline and online experiences for smartphone users. At Pointr, we believe we’re just seeing the beginning of a world where all your online behavior will blend in with your offline activities and many offline objects (bus stops, vending machines, cars, shopping malls, museums, car parks and department stores will all become smarter and we will be able to interact with them).

We foresee applications that range from straightforward loyalty/marketing ones (e.g. being greeted personally when you walk into your favourite store, and receiving tailored offers based on your online and offline shopping history) to really useful ones such as being able to track valuable assets (e.g. being notified immediately when you leave your wallet behind) or navigation inside huge indoor venues or even underground stations, mines, etc.