Hardware

Pointr has designed the state of the art hardware, named “POP” (Pointr of Presence) which is used to power the App-Free-Analytics services.

However, when it comes to Bluetooth beacons, Pointr does not manufacture them and is hardware-agnostic, providing compatibility with USB, mains, battery and solar powered beacons.

Different beacons suit different environments and we can help advise the most suitable option for you, including the benefits and disadvantages of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and WiFi enabled beacons.

Bluetooth Beacons

Tiny matchbox sized boxes that sends out radio signals. Easy to install, long battery life (~3 years) and no cabling required. There are numerous manufacturers of said beacons and at Pointr we are hardware agnostic, hence can work with any supplier or recommend you some of our existing trusted suppliers.

Pointr of Presence (POP)

Designed in London, Pointr’s powerful POP is a signal box that’s capable of location analytics, asset tracking and beacon monitoring all at the same time. POP requires a mains/USB power source and has security measures put in place that makes it highly resilient to Wi-Fi interruptions.

So, what is a beacon?

A 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 give a desired 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 they 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 does the range vary with situation?

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 BLE, 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 recognise 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.

Do beacons work with iPhones/Android/ Windows phones?

Yes all modern phones can support BLE 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 BLE 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 BLE 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 BLE in a similar way to Android (e.g. Windows phones require the Lumia Cyan update).

Hey! Will BLE drain my battery?

In the same way as BLE 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 BLE 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.

Well, how is an iBeacon different to a regular Bluetooth Beacon?

It’s not really, iBeacon is a protocol devised by Apple that aims to standardise the data broadcast by bluetooth beacons. In other words, iBeacon is an Apple flavour, running on top of core BLE 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 expect 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.

How much do beacons cost?

You can pick up a beacon for £10 or up to £25+ depending on what features and battery life you want from it.

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 publicised 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.

Have more questions about hardware requirements?

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