An in-depth analysis of how bluetooth beacon technology is used for location positioning
For the majority, our first experience with Bluetooth technology probably involved some sort of wireless headset or hands-free device. However, a new wave of Bluetooth beacon devices are now emerging. These new Bluetooth beacons devices are lower in cost and they consume less power.
From a non-technical, user perspective, the name Bluetooth covers any form of Bluetooth connectivity and requires some sort of manual activation via your smartphone. In reality, there are two types of Bluetooth “radios”: Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons (BLE). Despite their similar names, the two Bluetooth “radios” are not compatible with each other.
Bluetooth classic is most frequently used for streaming high data loads such as music from your phone to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker, or streaming a podcast to your wireless headphones. As such, Bluetooth Classic tends to transmit more data and consume higher levels of power.
BLE beacons however, transmit data at a regular interval, consume less power, and as a result, can last for several months (sometimes years) on a single battery. The long survival period is one of the reasons why it’s called low energy.
What is a Bluetooth Beacon?
A Bluetooth beacon is a small and wireless battery-powered radio transmitter that uses BLE as it’s transmission protocol. This mini-radio transmission device can be “discovered” and seen by all BLE scanners within a certain radius. The Bluetooth beacon, however, cannot “see” anyone back.
Beacon technology doesn’t require an internet connection and acts as a broadcaster within a short-range radius. The receiving device, such as a BLE-enabled smartphone, often acts as an intermediary device that uses the information from the beacon to do something with it.
The transmission distance is typically around 10-30 meters for interior spaces. Bluetooth beacons enable the connection between the physical and digital world by creating a communication bridge between enabled devices and the person carrying them.
In theory, beacon technology allows businesses to automate certain processes and enhance experience-based actions and interactions. Bluetooth beacons are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the connection between different devices and machines to collect and transfer data without human-to-human or human-to-computer relationships.
How does a beacon work?
Bluetooth beacons work by transmitting packets of data that are picked up by a compatible receiving device via radio waves. These packets of data are either self-contained or are triggers to events on the receiving device such as push notifications, app actions, and prompts.
BLE uses the same spectrum range as Bluetooth Classic (2.400–2.4835 GHz ISM band) but on a different set of channels. BLE has 3 primary advertising channels, making it faster for devices to connect with and reduces a listening device scanning time. To prevent narrowband interference problems, BLE uses frequency hopping via digital modulation techniques or direct-sequence spread spectrum to counteract.
A Bluetooth beacon has a theoretical maximum radius distance of less than 100m. It can also have up to 6ms latency from a non-connected state. The actual range and response time depends on the beacon itself and what process it has been programmed to do.
BLE is mostly used in short-range applications such as indoor wayfinding (using the standard 1M PHY). Most Bluetooth beacons can reliably transmit up to approximately 30 meters without any physical obstructions. A typical operating range is around 2 to 5 meters, depending on the transmit power. The higher the range, the higher the battery consumption. Now that you have a theoretical understanding of how beacons work, let’s take a look at them in action.
Bluetooth beacons in action
BLE beacon technology is the most common technology used for providing indoor positioning. Unless you’re Mapsted– the world’s first hardware-free indoor location service, indoor positioning technology will rely heavily upon the installation of unreliable bluetooth beacons.
BLE beacons are typically mounted throughout an indoor venue on walls or other physical entities. As previously mentioned, the beacon devices emit wireless signals, which BLE receivers (e.g. smartphones) can receive.
Current smartphones can support the Bluetooth 4.0 protocol. In the future, when smartphones support the Bluetooth 5.1 protocol, they can take advantage of a new feature for direction finding, which is capable of also measuring the direction of the beacon, which can help improve the positioning accuracy significantly.
BLE signals contain metadata which is processed and used to determine the user’s location. There are two popular protocols for BLE communication, iBeacon and Eddystone.
iBeacon Metadata (Received):
- MAC address (unique ID for each beacon – only available on Android)
- RSS (received signal strength)
- Proximity UUID (identifier for a collection of beacons)
- Major (identify general areas, e.g., floor number)
- Minor (identify more specific areas, e.g., specific region of the Major’s floor)
Eddystone Metadata (Received):
- MAC address (unique ID for each beacon – only available on Android)
- RSS (received signal strength)
- Eddystone UUID
- Eddystone URL (a url, if desired)
- Eddystone TLM (current status of the beacon)
The RSS provides a rough measurement of how far away the device is. Intuitively, a strong RSS would indicate that the user is close to that Wi-Fi router and a weak RSS would indicate that the user is far from the Wi-FI router.
BLE beacons can be used for positioning via several methods:
- BLE proximity beacons
- BLE trilateration
- BLE fingerprinting
BLE proximity identifies a rougher user position based on which BLE is visible at the time. BLE trilateration infers the distances between the user and each visible Wi-Fi router and calculates its position based on those distances.
Bluetooth beacon fingerprinting does not need to know the locations of the Wi-Fi routers but instead creates a large fingerprint map of the RSS of each beacon at various locations and then in real-time compares the measured RSS to the fingerprint map to determine the users position. Constructing the Wi-Fi fingerprint map can be time-consuming and requires a site-survey.
The pros and cons of beacon technology
In theory, beacons should allow for smart and highly detailed data collection.
In 2013 when Apple released their iBeacon technology, everyone was ecstatic because this technology was supposed to be the next big thing. Wired, TechCrunch, Forbes, and The Verge all gave the technology high praise in their reviews. The Washington Post even wrote an article praising the technology, entitled “How iBeacons Could Change the World Forever.”
Now fast forward 8 years to the present date. Beacons do still exist, and companies like Google are beginning to create their own beacon technology. But it doesn’t feel like beacons have made much of an impact in our day-to-day lives at this point.
So, what’s up? Are bluetooth beacon apps still the location technology of the future? Why haven’t they had a bigger effect on society today?
Let’s find out.
Imagine we’re back in 2013 and you’re the owner of a well-known and successful brand. You have already established multiple store locations, but your total revenue seems to be down slightly. Mobile technology is beginning to gain popularity, which provides you with a new opportunity to reach, monetize, and build relationships with your customers, but it also makes it possible for new, mobile-first companies to compete seriously with you. E-commerce demand comes in and provides personalized campaigns that drive customer loyalty and higher revenue, decreasing your brick-and-mortar revenue even more. You’re now in fear of your stores becoming obsolete.
Then beacon technology becomes available. And suddenly, it seems like there might be a way to bring the in-store experience into the modern era.
According to PC Magazine, “This technology could provide retailers the long-desired solutions and insight needed to incorporate mobile commerce and improve your shopping experience.”
Sounds amazing right? But how will beacons do this?
- Bluetooth proximity beacons support more responsive messaging
According to Wired, bluetooth proximity beacons were supposed to have a strong influence over the world of retail. The article said responsive messaging could allow retailers to “make specialized offers to customers depending where they are in the store”.
For example, when a customer is shopping online and they leave an item in their cart, you can use push notifications to urge them to complete the purchase. This increases the odds of them actually buying. In retail stores, when a customer is contemplating buying an item, all the sales representative can do is talk to them about that item. If they are not able to persuade the shopper to complete the sale, there is no reasonable way to get that shopper’s information or follow up with them later – a sales associate can’t ask the shopper for their phone number so they can follow up with them later.
But with proximity beacons, if a customer stops to browse a display, you can automatically send a message to their smartphone offering them a discount if they buy the item today. And if they still leave the store without buying, your brand could reach out to them later via mobile.
2. Beacons improve collection of customer data
Forbes wrote that beacons would be “especially useful in places (like inside a shopping mall) where GPS location data may not be reliably available” and also said that, “BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] allows for interactions as far away as 160 feet” with greater sensitivity than GPS or Wi-Fi tracking methods. This means owners get the same detailed insights into their in-store activity as they do on their app or website.
A good beacon network should allow you to track how customers move throughout each store. You should be able to measure the bluetooth beacon range, and you should be able to see all their patterns in detail, aisle by aisle. Then with this data you should be able to optimize the layout of every store, understand what is working about your in-store experience, and take the small information gathered to make big improvements to your customer personalization and targeting.
More responsive messages and in-person data collection sound pretty good, right? Merging your brand’s mobile and in-person presence in ways that benefit both. But now it’s almost 2020, and the impact of beacons hasn’t caught up with the hype. A lot of brands have implemented a bluetooth beacon app in their physical locations, or announced trials of the technology: Macy’s, Walmart, CVS, and Barney’s to name a few.
So why have beacons fallen short of their expectations?
- Implementing beacons is hard
Installing, managing, and maintaining beacons across a large facility is a major task that requires major planning and testing. Even using them in smaller facilities is a monumental undertaking.
In a blog on the Brooklyn Museum’s website, Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, delved into the issues that her staff dealt with while trying to implement beacons. Bernstein said,“The practicalities have been difficult.” (*pull-out quote for graphics)
In her experience:
- Bluetooth proximity beacons come in limited colours
- They are too heavy for the adhesive used to keep them in place
- Beacons lack serial numbers on their cases, making it hard to tell one from another
- They run on batteries, which have to be replaced often, adding to the expense
- They work before they’re installed, which means you collect erroneous data
While Bernstein does say that beacons have provided some positive value to the museum, she expects to replace the beacons with another location-based technology.
2. Physical objects reduce bluetooth beacon range
When retailers were given a survey which asked why they were interested in beacon technology, 65% said that the ability to track their customers aisle by aisle was a major factor in making the choice to implement the technology. While the potential benefit of this technology is clear, the execution is poor.
Again, according to Bernstein, her team at the Brooklyn Museum found that beacons’ BLE signals were blocked by physical objects.
“The problem is so bad that I can be standing directly beside a beacon on the wall, and will find a stronger signal coming from one across the room,” said Bernstein.
To improve the bluetooth beacon range and accuracy of the information provided, the staff at the Brooklyn Museum had to do extra coding. No one wants or should have to do that.
3. The benefits of beacons haven’t been sold to customers
According to Tim Zimmerman, research vice president at Gartner, “ many [beacon] projects have failed because the architect was enamored with the mobile application capabilities and back-end application functionality without understanding whether the beacon components could broadcast the right information to the right constituency.” Essentially, beacons have failed because customers have to opt in multiple times for brands to get the full value of their investment. Using beacons in a way that doesn’t add value for customers will negatively impact their perception and make it harder for them to buy in.
And yes, getting customers to use this bluetooth beacon technology is a struggle. When asked, 30% of people said that messages, like the push notifications that are triggered by bluetooth beacons, are “very annoying.” For bluetooth beacons to become disruptive in the industry, brands must find a way to combat customer skepticism. That hasn’t happened yet.