To continue my series on Getting Started with the Internet of Things, Getting Hands-On with Internet of Things, and Internet of Things with IBM Bluemix, I would like to talk about the now maturing technology of beacons.
I was at an event recently organized by one of the major players in the IT industry, and just when I was about to throw my badge away, I stopped because I saw a small label on it mentioning “major” and “minor”. That made me curious, and when I got it open, my suspicion was confirmed, it was a beacon. Maybe the vendor had informed about this, and I missed it, but I was a bit surprised that they had probably recorded most of my movement during the event, and since the badge was registered to me personally, they probably know exactly which presentations I attended, if I was on time, how long I stayed, and maybe even how may cups of coffee I had. My main point here is not to talk about privacy, although I recommend everyone to be observant of anything that someone wants you to wear, and if you would like to track your event participants, or customers in your store, etc, please be very transparent about it, and provide an easy way to opt out.
My point is that this technology is definitely here to stay, and you should look into how it can be used in your digital solutions. So what exactly is a beacon? It’s a BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy – the main chip in the badge was the common CC2541 from Texas Instruments) device that sends out (at least) three pieces of data: a (128 bit) unique identifier, a major and minor identifier (number). Any device, like a smartphone, with BLE can detect the signal and depending on the strength, it can make assumptions about the distance to the beacon. That’s it! Today almost all iPhones have support for BLE, and about two thirds of Android devices worldwide (BLE is supported on Android 4.4 and above).
The obvious example used is in retail, i.e. to put a stationary beacon close to a product in a store, and to lower the installation and maintenance costs, suppliers like our manufacturing client Philips are including them in their LED lights. As GPS is not very reliable inside buildings, with enough beacons, they can be used for indoor positioning with high accuracy (e.g. Estimote Indoor Positioning). Also, as you just learned above, it can also be used to track moving things, like people, but also goods and inventory, as some of our insurance clients are realizing. A nice example was done by Nivea (The Protection Ad), where the beacon was included in an ad with a bracelet to track your child on the beach. As you can see, this is not something that applies to only one sector, all organizations can make use of beacons in their digital solutions.
Here is a video on how to build an iPhone app that use beacons.