iBeacon - bridging the gap between e-commerce and brick and mortar retail

Published in iOS development, TechnologyComments

Along with the iOS 7 update, various Apple mobile devices received support last year for an interesting technology called iBeacon, that aims to help us with shopping, navigating indoor locations and much more.

Imagine that, as you enter Apple Store, iPhone in your pocket vibrates and gives you a notification with special offers along with a list of products on sale. If a particular product piques your interest, your iPhone can lead you through the store to that product shelf. As you approach it, more info about the displayed product is shown on the info screen above the shelf or on the screen of your smartphone.

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Also, some aspects of the product may not be completely clear to you, so you decide to call for assistance by pushing the appropriate button in the smartphone app. The store clerk, in this case an Apple Genius, magically finds you in a large store filled with people. Finally, when you decide which items you want to purchase, you can approach the cashier, register the items with a barcode scanner and authorize mobile payment with a swipe of a finger or, perhaps, on iPhone 5S with your own fingerprint.

Sounds like something from the future? Well, all these things are made possible with iBeacon.

Like GPS, but indoors

iBeacon technology works just like the Global Positioning System (GPS). iBeacon is a dumb device that transmits the signal with a three part identifier. This signal is picked up by a compatible device, like iPhone 5S, and interpreted by a compatible app or apps. If the app recognizes the signal, it runs a predefined action.

The iBeacon signal consists of three parts:

  • UUID – Universally Unique Identifier, a 128-bit number used by apps to tell iBeacons apart
  • Major – first numerical identifier (simple integer number like 1, 2, 435)
  • Minor – second numerical identifier

Major and Minor are used as the developer sees fit and allow apps to differentiate between iBeacons with the same UUID.

As you can see, iBeacons are not networked and they don't transmit any data beyond UUID and two numbers. Apps have to know what to do with these three variables, on their own or with outside help by contacting a remote server.

Apps which are registered for monitoring iBeacons don't need to be active, but they have to work in the background, just like apps which use GPS location or geofencing.

As a positioning system, with three or more iBeacon transmitters and triangulation, it can be used as a very precise indoor navigation system. Although navigation functionality is interesting, the main goals of iBeacon are targeted advertising and mobile payment.

Negligible power draw

iBeacon is built on top of an existing technology called Bluetooth Low Energy, which is part of a wider standard called Bluetooth 4.0. Bluetooth enables short range (up to 50 m) wireless communication and is primarily aimed at connecting mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and various accessories like in-ear headsets or smartwatches. Bluetooth LE devices have minuscule power draw. For example, simple iBeacon device can work 24/7 for up to two years on just one slim watch battery.

Despite the fact that Bluetooth LE is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard, not all Bluetooth 4.0 devices support it. Lucky for us, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group maintains a list of compatible devices.

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Among them are all iPhones after iPhone 4S and all iPads since iPad 3rd Gen. The cool thing is that iBeacon is not exclusive to Apple devices. In theory, it should work on any device with Bluetooth LE chip in it and a proper software support in the operating system. In practice, it works only on Android devices running on Android 4.3 or later – for example, Samsung Galaxy S4. There are even some compatible apps, as you can see with a simple Google Play search.

iBeacon devices

There are separate devices that can use Bluetooth LE and act as a beacon, like Estimote's iBeacon and Roximity iBeacon. Compatible iOS and Android devices can also act as beacons. That's how an Apple Genius can find the customer mentioned at the beginning of the article.

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Both mentioned vendors sell their beacons for the same price - $100 for a package with three devices. Roximity also offers further discount for those who want to buy more than 10 pieces.

Similar technologies

Near Field Communication (NFC) is similar technology when it comes to how it works, and a lot of people think that iBeacon is a competitive technology. For the moment, that is not true. The purpose of these two technologies is completely different. While NFC is intended to transfer data, iBeacon’s purpose is to detect nearby devices.

On the other hand, Apple had no plans to implement NFC into the product stack and that's a clear signal that it aims to use Bluetooth LE based technology for the same purpose. The big question is, will Apple jump in the business with its own mobile payment system? I think so, but time will tell.

Here are the main differences between NFC and iBeacon technology:

  • iBeacon detects nearby devices and NFC is a data transfer system (one-way vs two-way communication)
  • NFC requires a special chip not present in many devices, especially Apple's products
  • iBeacon has far greater range, up to 50 m, while NFC operates within 20 cm
  • iBeacon is more secure than NFC because beacons are used only as a dumb trigger, while the actual data exchange is done through a standard secure connection
  • NFC can work with passive unpowered NFC tags, while iBeacon requires powered devices

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There are also other players entering the same market and using very similar technology. PayPal recently announced its service called Beacon, which is also based on Bluetooth LE and a custom software profile. Interested retailers will be able to get a PayPal Beacon which can be plugged into any USB port and which will communicate (two-way) with nearby compatible devices equipped with the PayPal app.

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