August 14, 2015

How Bluetooth beacons actually work?

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Andreas Jakl

Mobility Evangelist, Tieto

Beacons are currently one of the hottest topics in the mobile app industry. They promise new application scenarios, targeted marketing & advertisements and more accurate indoor localization. Could they be useful for your idea as well?

Why beacons are interesting

Through Bluetooth beacons, your phone gets aware of your physical world. Beacons are small Bluetooth-based transmitters that continually broadcast their presence, along with a tiny amount of data – enough to automatically trigger a specific response in your mobile device.

Some usage scenarios where beacons can help:

  • In a shop, you could get personalized offers or recommendations right when you see the project
  • Indoors, where GPS doesn't get a signal, beacons can help tremendously in making accurate indoor location work – making it possible to find your way around in a big office, shopping center, airport or storehouse
  • In a museum, your phone acts as an automated audio guide; you no longer have to borrow a device and enter a number for each piece of art, you simply need to stand in front of it to hear the story behind
  • In a logistics scenario you can use beacons for tracking and locating goods, as well as monitoring their data like the temperature

What's the difference? Apple iBeacon, Google Eddystone & Co

Essentially, a Bluetooth beacon is a tiny piece of hardware with a Bluetooth module, an antenna and a battery. According to the Bluetooth Low Energy (LE/Smart) standard, they constantly transmit information – no matter whether someone is listening or not. The Bluetooth standard is efficient enough to make beacons work for months on a single battery.

While accessories like heart rate monitors are also discoverable for your phone, beacons are not intended to be paired with your phone; their only aim is to transmit a small piece of data. However, exactly this piece of data is not standardized by the core Bluetooth specification. This means that the Bluetooth standard specifies *how* the beacons send the information, but not exactly *what* they send.

Apple invented the iBeacon specification, where each beacon transmits an ID that an app can register for. However, the exact specification is not publicly available and proprietary by Apple.

For this reason, open alternatives like AltBeacon stepped in and provided their own specification for this tiny data packet. Recently, also Google decided to create an open format and called it Eddystone, based on a famous lighthouse in the south of England. Their specification is available under an open source license and works both with iOS and Android phones.

Another advantage of Eddystone is that these beacons can emit more data. In addition to IDs, the specification includes broadcasting URLs (e.g., to link to your app for users who have not yet downloaded it) or telemetry information for monitoring the state of your beacon (temperature, battery life, etc.). Together with the ability to dynamically modify the transmitted IDs, this makes them better suitable for more involved enterprise scenarios like logistics and tracking applications.

What's the role of Windows 10?

Especially for the business environment, Windows plays a big role. With Windows 10, Microsoft has also introduced support for Bluetooth beacons. Microsoft did not invent their own beacon specification, and also has not provided guidance on how to integrate with other beacon formats; low level tools are available, the rest is up to the developer.

The solution for cross-platform Bluetooth beacons

For this reason, I have created an open source library that enables you to easily integrate beacons to your application – especially based on the open Google Eddystone specification, but easily extensible for other formats as well.

The library comes with a sample application that continuously monitors and scans for beacons, and then parses all the available data emitted by the beacon. You can download the app from the store – available for all Bluetooth Smart enabled PCs, laptops, tablets and phones running Windows 10.

As a Windows developer, the Universal Beacon Library saves you from re-implementing the Google Eddystone specification and lets you start directly with writing the core code that matters to make your app unique. It parses the data out of the individual Eddystone frames and matches them with unique Bluetooth beacons, keeping your app's view of the world up-to-date.

Start Using Bluetooth beacons!

With the open Bluetooth beacon standard from Google that is compatible to both Android and iOS, plus as the open source library to work with Eddystone beacon data in Windows 10 apps, the app world is now ready for larger scale deployments of beacon scenarios.

This will finally allow your phones to bring a truly local and personalized experience to you and your customers. Let's discuss how to integrate Bluetooth beacons into your business scenario!

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