At Pointr we have developed our own state-of-the-art hardware solution, named POP® (Pointr of Presence) that powers our App-Free Analytics services.
We also make smart use of Bluetooth® Beacons. Pointr does not manufacture these, and we ensure to stay hardware-agnostic to be as flexible as possible.
A Beacon is a small device (approx 3cm x 5cm x 2cm) that constantly sends out radio signals, sometimes containing a small amount of data, that can be understood by nearby smartphones and tablets.
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.
A Beacon is a small device (approx 3cm x 5cm x 2cm) that constantly sends out radio signals, sometimes containing a small amount of data, that can be understood by nearby smartphones and tablets. They are very easy to install, typically have a long battery life (of ~3 years), and no cabling or any additional infrastructure is required. They come in many colours, shapes and sizes, and from many manufacturers, but at Pointr we are hardware agnostic, and can work with any Beacons you have, or recommend you some of our existing trusted suppliers. Different Beacons also suit different environments, and we can help advise the most suitable option for you.
Beacons work using Bluetooth Low Energy which is a version of the more common Bluetooth protocol, it is 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).
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 device. Note that beacons only work in one direction (i.e. they can broadcast data, but they can not listen). For the majority of Beacons already out there, the data transmitted is hard coded and doesn’t change frequently (i.e. set it once when configuring the Beacon), and they rely on the listening device to do something intelligent with the data – although this will likely change with the emergence of newer and higher level Bluetooth Low Energy technologies.
Beacons can have up to 70m range with no obstructions, this can vary significantly, especially through walls and materials that are made with metal or brick (though thin/stud walls have a small impact on range).
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)
One key usage of Bluetooth Low Energy is to recognise how you move through these ranges and then offer experiences such as a welcome/goodbye message as you do some shopping, and even help you understand which parts of the shop you interacted with.
It’s important to remember that this processing would have to be done by an Application running on a device, as a Beacon only transmits data, and cannot receive a signal from your device – this information could however be transmitted back to the Shop via a data/Wi-Fi connection.
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).
No, unlike Active Bluetooth, receiving signals from Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons uses a lot less power than you might think. Leaving Bluetooth running on a device will typically use 1-3% of a total battery over the course of a full day – though if you are using standard (“Active”) Bluetooth at the same time (e.g. leaving Bluetooth headphones connected) then this can increase.
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 Bluetooth Low Energy technology and Beacons. Any Bluetooth Beacon can be configured as an iBeacon, as long as it transmits data according to Apple’s standards. Currently Apple doesn’t manufacture 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 we may see a change.
Due to their simple and lightweight nature, in large volumes Bluetooth Beacons can be incredibly inexpensive. You can pick one up for about £5-£25 depending on the features and battery life you want from it.
Contrary to common understanding, Beacons themselves transmit no meaningful data. Instead, they transmit short identifiers and it is an Application or other software that should make use of this information and do something useful. For example, an Application can detect a seemingly-random number that was broadcast by a Beacon, then connect to internet to convert this number into a message, and then trigger a notification on the device. 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 aspect of Bluetooth Beacon implementations to ensure that nothing sensitive is transmitted through Bluetooth Low Energy, and instead it should trigger a secure process.
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.