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Understanding BLE Beacons

Have you ever walked into a store knowing what you want to buy, but it took you longer to find the product than driving to the store? Ever wondered why? It's not the store trying to play treasure hunt with you, it's the lack of precise directions in a confined, closed and constantly changing environment.

We use several applications that can give us step-by-step directions from one place to the other, and some even account for our mistakes for not following those step-by-step directions (ever seen “Rerouting..please wait”?). Google Maps, Apple Maps, Ways, are some of the many applications that can help us get from one end of the world to the other. But none can precisely point to a product that is under the same roof as you, sometimes less than 5 meters away. What might solve this problem? BLE Beacons look promising.

What are BLE Beacons?

What is BLE?

BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. It is a form of a wireless communication designed for short-range communication. Its most significant asset is consuming less energy, thereby having a longer life without needing to charge/change batteries. In many cases a BLE beacon can last up to 4 years.

What are beacons?

Beacons are small Bluetooth radio transmitters mostly powered by battery (some are USB powered as well). What do beacons look like? What do they do?  and How do they work? The following are just a few examples of what a beacon could look like:

BLE Beacons 1 BLE Beacons 2a BLE Beacons 3a

As far as what they do? They simply transmit Bluetooth low energy signals at customizable frequency. It is up to the application on the device (most likely Bluetooth enabled smartphones) scanning or looking for these signals to act accordingly when it comes in range of the desired beacon (display alert, pop up ads, show notification, etc.)

Now to the best part, how does a beacon work? Each beacon is recognized by a combination of 3 parameters: UUID, Major and Minor. A UUID (Universally Unique Identifier) contains 32 hexadecimal digits (Example: f7826da6-4fa2-4e98-8024-bc5b71e0893e). Major and Minor are numbers assigned to beacons to make them more distinguishable from thousands of others, as companies might choose to have similar UUID’s.

The following section illustrates a case study of how Target used beacons to help provide customers step-by-step directions from the customer’s current location in-store to the desired product in the store. It will also shed light on how the 3 parameters (UUID, Major, and Minor) can be customized to configure the beacons to be deployed.

How are beacons being used?

A beacon alone has limited features. Store meta-data, send the stored meta-data to the device/application that comes in range of that beacon, and possibly more depending on the beacon being used. Having said that, a network of beacons configured correctly unlocks a range of features that were previously out of scope.

A major feature of this networking is space mapping. Space mapping is using a network of beacons to map a floor plan, resulting in the device in that floor plan being space aware. Target has used a similar framework to give customer’s step-by-step instructions to a product that they desire to buy. This can be achieved in several ways, some involving use of advanced sets of beacons that don’t need a specific set of configurations to map a floor plan.

Let’s go over one of such way this can be accomplished using ordinary BLE beacons (iBeacons).

How to configure beacons?

Let’s imagine a floor plan of a store with beacons being deployed at every wall/compartment/section. Now the next step is configuring these beacons to tell us where it is placed and thereby tell us/user what steps need to be taken to reach the desired product. The simplest way to achieve this is to set a UUID of all beacons deployed by the store constant. This will enable us/user/application to detect any of the beacons we come in range of, enabling us to start navigation as soon as any one of these beacons is detected.

The next step would be setting the Major of all beacons in a department be constant, but unique to each department (Example: All beacons in Furnishing: Major = 150, All beacons in Electronics: Major = 100). This will help navigate the user/customer from the department he/she is in (which the beacons around the customer’s current location would illustrate) to the desired department the product which the customer wants to buy, is placed in. If the user follows those directions to guide him/her from one department to the other, it is safe to assume that the customer is in the department where the desired product is placed.

Now navigating to a specific product in the department can be achieved by using a unique value for Minor for each beacon placed in that department. This will result in each beacon in that department having the same UUID (as it is constant to all beacons in that store), same Major value (as all beacons in that department share this value), but a different Minor value relative to other beacons in that same department. So, no two beacons placed in the same department will share value for all three parameters of a beacon.

The only step left is to map each of these beacons to the products placed around them. This most likely is the responsibility of the application on the device or the host (if the application is interacting with some sort of a host).

One of the questions you may now have is how do we know where the user is if the device is in range of two beacons at the same time? The answer is easy - the distance between the beacon and the device/user. Most of the applications interacting with beacons leverage the feature of calculating distance between the device the application is running on and the beacons. We just assume that the user/device is at the same location as the beacon that it is closest to.

More applications of beacons...

Having gone over that small exercise and showing how beacons can be used to provide step-by-step instructions to navigate in a confined space, how are other companies using beacons? There are some companies (Macy’s, American Eagle Outfitter, Apple Stores, and many more) that are using beacons for other purposes to enhance customer experience. Some examples of how they use it include: pushing targeted advertisements regarding special offers, discounts, and upcoming sales to customers depending on what part of the store/mall the user is currently in. Some use the information they have on a customer (example: a scheduled pickup of a package) and the information that the customer has entered the building to prep for the service (prep the package for the customer’s pickup). There are many such applications of beacons and how spatial awareness can help user experience.

When NOT to use BLE beacons? When to use BLE beacons?

Having gone over an entire article regarding beacons, let’s look at some of the cons of using a beacon. It can only help users that have applications on their devices that are looking for these beacons. It also limits the usage to users who have their device’s Bluetooth feature enabled all the time (I can’t imagine many users enabling Bluetooth on their devices just as they step inside a store, mall or airport). Regardless of how powerful BLE beacon technology is, the cons listed above are some that cannot be worked around, as a beacon is useless without a receiver that is looking for it.

That being said, there is a longer list of pros regarding use of beacons. Precision to the nearest meter/feet (depending on the beacon being used), use of low energy (leading to low maintenance), mobility (simple enough to relocate a beacon), power of customizing the application to change behavior without having to re-configure a set of beacons, and many more.

After considering both pros and cons of using BLE beacons, it can easily be said that beacons have a huge role to play when it comes to IoT, spatial awareness and customer/user experience. BLE beacon technology gives us enough tools, to customize, design, and innovate products and software that can solve a problem, or enhance user experience.

References 
  1. UUID, Major, Minor: https://support.kontakt.io/hc/en-gb/articles/201620741-iBeacon-Parameters-UUID-Major-and-Minor
  2. Beacons: https://estimote.com/
  3. Target using beacons: https://techcrunch.com/2017/09/20/target-rolls-out-bluetooth-beacon-technology-in-stores-to-power-new-indoor-maps-in-its-app/
  4. Companies that use beacons: https://gomedici.com/10-companies-already-using-beacons-technology/

Do you have a project that BLE beacons would be a good use for?  Join in the conversation below or Contact Us.

Pushkar Thakkar, Software Engineer

Pushkar Thakkar, Software Engineer

Pushkar graduated from University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in Computer Science in 2018, joined ISE as a Software Engineer in January of 2019. Apart from learning about new technologies, Pushkar likes to watch and support Manchester United Football Club (hard work at times).

Pushkar Thakkar, Software Engineer

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Understanding BLE Beacons Jul 11, 2019