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Technology | September 07, 2017

Everything Apple does is Magic but iBeacon?

Apple iBeacon did not exist when I wrote RTLS for Dummies. And, almost four years after Apple announced iBeacon, it has failed to live up to the kind of sky-high expectations Apple’s involvement evokes. People often ask me why iBeacon, despite the seductive promise of Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality applications, has not disrupted the indoor location industry.

Before I address that, let me just start with what iBeacon is and how it works.

What is iBeacon?
iBeacon is Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technology to create location transmitters. These are small, unobtrusive devices, typically battery based, installed throughout your facility and transmit a “location code” (referred to as Major/Minor Number) using BLE protocol (2.4GHz).

In many ways, iBeacons are exactly like the United States’ satellite navigation system – NAVSTAR GPS. NAVSTAR GPS has 24 satellites around us that transmit a code (called a ranging signal) on two frequencies in the microwave part of the radio spectrum — 1575.42 MHz (L1 frequency available for civilian use) and 1227.60 MHz (L2 frequency for military use). The receivers (such as mobile phone, car GPS receiver, etc.) listen for the signals from the satellite and then by using multilateration with knowledge of distance from four or more satellites, the GPS receiver computes its own position.

This is how you use iBeacons too. The receivers, such as mobile phone, listen for signals from the iBeacons and then use the location code (major/minor number) and RSSI (received signal strength indicator) for distance. The receiver can use that to determine its location context.  Once the receiver has the “location context”, this can potentially revolutionize a user’s entire world —from what happens when you enter your home to attending your kid’s sporting events.

One of the most obvious applications is in retail. With iBeacon, you could visit a store and tap in to find where everything on your shopping list is. Or a retailer can alert you to a particularly good deal in the next aisle. There are lots of other uses as well. On its developer’s page, Apple proposes iBeacons could be used to greet people as they arrive at a sporting event and let them know about a nearby museum exhibit. Retailers can also use data generated from such interactions to see where shoppers traveled in store and which items caught their attention.

Not only this, you can use iBeacons to act as BLE receivers too! This way you can attach the iBeacons to assets and install iBeacons (or any other BLE receivers) in the facility and enable asset tracking. You can locate the “assets” that are transmitting iBeacons – identifying the location of each asset by its major/minor number and RSSI as seen by one or multiple receivers. This enables you to use iBeacon for asset tracking, employee time card management and much more.

Is it something Apple invented?
Not really. People have always recognized the need for indoor location technologies such as iBeacon as GPS does not work indoors. GPS signals fade away as they pass through solid objects, such as buildings and mountains. Cricket, published a location-support system for in-building, mobile, location-dependent applications in 2000. It allows applications running on mobile and static nodes to learn their physical location by using listeners that hear and analyze information from beacons spread throughout the building. In my book, I also described landmark tags. In landmark system, the locating infrastructure consists of beacons (location sensors) that are small devices attached to fixed locations within the geographic space. Each beacon transmits a data string that uniquely identifies the location of the area where it is fixed and receivers. And so on.

However, what Apple has done is nothing short of amazing. They created an OPEN standard for beacons. This made the entire location industry come together. Before iBeacons, a particular vendor’s beacons were proprietary. They worked only with that vendor’s software. With iBeacons, now anyone can create iBeacon or location-based services using iBeacons. It is NOT limited to iOS.

Then what is stopping the mass use of iBeacons?
iBeacon is the first open, interoperable indoor locating system and I have no doubt it will succeed. However, no one has yet definitively cracked the code on how to make adoption easy. iBeacons come with following challenges:

  • DEPLOYING BEACONS IS HARD: The struggle starts from the moment you start looking for spots to install the iBeacons inconspicuously and then it continues. Programming and installing each iBeacon is a time consuming manual affair.
  • MAINTENANCE AND UPGRADES ARE HARDER: Whether you have to periodically change batteries of beacons by going from beacon to beacon in person, finding and replacing a malfunctioning beacon, changing beacon parameters, or security updates – nothing is easy. With batteries, you also end up establishing processes for re-charging, storing, and disposing of the batteries you’ll use in iBeacons for location transmitters or asset tags.
  • SECURING BEACONS IS A PROBLEM: If you are deploying beacons, you need to know how to ensure that all beacons are in their place. No beacon has accidentally (or sometimes maliciously) moved to another location. Or, if there are rogue iBeacons that were not installed by you on your premises.
  • IT IS KIND OF EXPENSIVE: You might end up spending big money on human labor to manage beacons or on network management software to manage these Bluetooth beacons and the mesh network behind them.
  • BEACONS ARE EASILY BLOCKABLE: Beacon signals are often obstructed by physical objects.
  • SCALE: Ideally, for maximizing the value of your deployment for your use case whether wayfinding, proximity services, personalized experience or asset tracking, you need a pervasive deployment. That means many, many iBeacons.

Many Wi-Fi companies such as CiscoArubaMist Systems added BLE (Bluetooth low energy support) in their Wi-Fi Access Points so that the access points can act as iBeacon transmitters as well as BLE receivers to alleviate the need of additional battery or installations. This is a step in the right direction indeed!

We are gradually making a transition to a new era where it is not the computer or mobile phone that we carry but a digital environment that will support us in our daily lives by assisting us in a sensible way. The dream of ambient intelligence where the technology fades into the fabric of daily life, becoming both more pervasive and yet invisible is not far away.  I see iBeacon in its current form as the first big step in that direction and we will see many more creative ways to embed iBeacons in our surroundings.

There’s an untapped universe of data around physical locations that businesses can utilize and iBeacon has the potential. It is the right approach. It can transform real-time location-based services across retail, hospitality, healthcare, industrial and many more industries.

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