A beacon is a device that transmits a signal which allows another device to determine its proximity to the broadcaster. Beacons are based on Bluetooth Smart (Bluetooth Low Energy a.k.a. BLE) which is a low energy technology that consumes only a fraction of the power of Classic Bluetooth radios. All Beacons are mainly BLE devices, and due to BLE technology it can be placed near any target area and emit signals. Beacon is operated by a battery, and depending upon device and signal emitting frequency, battery can last for a year or longer
Beacons are mainly classified in two categories based upon technology and specification that they implement:
iBeacon: iBeacon is a technology (or a specification) developed by Apple to extend location-awareness in iOS platform (as an alternative to defining location using longitude/ latitude). Signal emitted by iBeacon hardware device enables iOS devices to alert a mobile app when it approaches/ leaves the location in proximity of the publishing iBeacon. A beacon transmitting over BLE needs to conform to specific properties (e.g. UUID, Major, Minor) so that Apple iOS can detect it as iBeacon. Even though iBeacons were promoted by Apple, Android OS also includes the capability to obtain the Major/ Minor UUID of iBeacons. A smartphone application can be developed that uses the unique identifiers of an iBeacon.
A few examples of iBeacon applications include: an indoor positioning system, proximity based push notifications (e.g. coupons), setting phone modes depending on the location or showing information relevant to a place
UriBeacon: Google has launched an experimental initiative called the Physical-Web, which aims to enable any device to broadcast a specific URI (e.g. website URI) that can be detected by the cellphone/ tablet of users. It enables users to access interactive web services without the need of a mobile app. The UriBeacon specification is designed with one goal in mind – to create the easiest, most open way to discover and use near-by smart things. When a smartphone discovers a UriBeacon, the corresponding website broadcast by the beacon gets opened in the browser of the device.
A few examples of UriBeacon applications include: URI publishing real-time positioning of bus arriving at a particular bus stop, URIs to check out offers, deals, item search and check-out process at retail store, URI published to provide static information such as infographics, circulars, warnings etc., URI published to access smart machines such as vending machine, smart kiosk etc.
Arguably, UriBeacon is less of a threat to users’ privacy as the smartphone browser just opens a URI without the need of any specialized app. The risky part about apps is that, more the number of apps, higher are the chances of there being a rogue app that abuses information on user’s location and preferences.
How beacon technology can be used to solve business problems
We now look at a solution prototype in the Retail Industry domain using iBeacons/ UriBeacons and the challenges that we faced.
Intelligent Retail Omni-Channel Solution(IROCS), A unique solution for retail business
IROCS, as shown in Figure 1, is powered by an intelligent analytics engine which is capable of performing cross channel analytics, thereby laying the foundation of configuring promotions. IROCS tracks the shopper’s journey across all the channels, analyzes the shopper’s behavior and intelligently delivers personalized and relevant promotions to shoppers at the right moment. This leads to an enhanced shopper experience across the channels and boosts sales conversions and revenue. Retailers are presented with several relevant reports, enabling them to take informed decisions about store operations.
The solution implements proximity detection component that uses iBeacons placed in the store at strategic positions and configured with their major and minor identifiers. Thus, the major/ minor identifiers become location identifiers of a beacon within a store. If the user with the mobile app comes into the field of the beacons, then an offer that is configured in the app for that iBeacon (i.e. location) will be pushed to the user. As an example, if a shopper comes in close proximity to a shelf containing detergents, then a coupon relevant to detergents is pushed on the shopper’s mobile app.
Value added services using UriBeacon
How Physical-web and UriBeacon can be used to publish a set of URIs to provide static and interactive information in
different scenarios is next explained. Physical-web is a very recent initiative and it means that there are certain workarounds that we need to adopt in order to explore this concept right now.
Hence, we have created a simple web application as shown in Figure 2 using Node.JS that can show the list of URLs, depicting 6 UriBeacon devices publishing an URL each for a specific scenario.
Some of the scenarios implemented are explained as below:
You are here – A UriBeacon publishing a URI linked to the map of current location. This scenario can easily relate with any location such as café shop, restaurant or shopping mall. The user’s device can detect the UriBeacon as the user comes to the vicinity and a map of the location gets opened within his phone browser.
Near-by-Cafe – An UriBeacon can publish a URI which can present information about near-by coffee shop/ restaurants or any offers available there. Another UriBeacon device can enables the customers sitting in a Café to visit it’s social network page and access reviews, feedback, online menu, and ‘know more’ page that tells interesting facts about that particular restaurant/ Café shop.
Retail Offers/deals – A UriBeacon placed in a retail shop can publish a URI which enables user to check online offers on the items available in the store. While, other devices placed in the store can provide interactive web page with dynamic features such as online order, check-out the e-shopping cart and pre-book or add items in the wish-list for home delivery.
Possible implementation Challenges in adopting beacon technology
Using beacon devices for proximity detection and indoor positioning is an emerging area.
There are a few challenges that we identified in adopting beacons for implementing different features which are as below:
#1 Dependency on user’s action such as enable Bluetooth, download specific app etc. in order to consume services offered using beacons.
#2 Identifying the right number of devices to be deployed so that they are within reach of intended users, as well as making it energy efficient.
#3 Frequent changes to device configuration could be cumbersome. E.g. Blesh UriBeacon needs beacon to be open in order to enable configuration mode.
#4 Changing batteries of beacons periodically can present a maintenance challenge particularly if a large number of these are deployed. Knowing which beacons have stopped communicating due to a dead battery or due to an inherent fault can also become a maintenance challenge.
In summary,iBeacon and UriBeacon are two hardware/software technologies that enable device-to-device communication. ABI Research’s quarterly indoor location database has forecast well over 1 million indoor location retail deployments by 2020, with BLE beacons now established as the key building block for indoor location. iBeacon protocol could be a perfect solution for loyalty programs and companies with enough engagement to achieve a good number of app downloads. UriBeacon is more focused on publishing relevant and contextual content, but without the need for a mobile app to consume it.