Get started with Bluetooth beacons

May 2, 2016 OpenSystems Media

Bluetooth beacons are taking off. They enable “proximity-aware applications” for customers, businesses, and industrial environments. With this technology, end customers benefit through instant coupons and tailored offerings based on their location; businesses benefit through improved visibility to customer buying habits and increased loyalty; and industrial companies benefit through improved asset monitoring and utilization.

The possibilities are endless, and beacons are set to transform our world. But before they do, you should be aware of the challenges in implementing them. Putting beacons on a product, pushing their data into the cloud, and then using it create value all represent new development frontiers for many of us.

Beacons are small, battery-powered, wireless devices that uses Bluetooth low-energy technology (formerly known as Bluetooth Low Energy, BLE, or Bluetooth Smart) to advertise its presence and services. They’re generally short-range and depends on smartphones to detect them and use an application to perform services relevant to the beacon’s location—thus “proximity-aware applications.” Th eprivacy of beacons as discussed in an earlier blog.

Bluetooth beacons are in fact not a Bluetooth SIG standard. Instead, companies like Google and Apple use the Bluetooth low-energy technology to deploy “pseudo-standard” beacon technology. Apple’s is called iBeacon and Google’s is called Eddystone. There are other open source pseudo-standards as well as closed proprietary standards.

In consumer applications, a beacon may cover a certain store department, like cooking spices at the local grocery. When a customer passes through looking for A1 Steak Sauce, an advertising beacon will let a smartphone application know to push a Kraft recipe that uses additional Kraft ingredients. Research shows customers are willing to receive these types of offers, opening 53% of instant, proximity-aware coupons versus 14% of static offers.

1. Example of a retail convenience coupon.

There are compelling commercial and industrial applications, too. Beacons can track and help manage important assets, like expensive power tools. A beacon-enabled tool allows a proximity-aware application it to “check in” to a monitoring node to determine when the tool is in a tool bin, on the shop floor, or not in range. The same application can monitor and report tool status such as charge level, operating time, and performance. This has obvious positive implications to the lifetime and security of the tool as well as its optimized utilization.

One last use case that is likely to show up soon: fast-food restaurants have been evaluating beacon technology to increase efficiency and improve customer service at the drive-through. The customer pulls up to a beacon-enabled drive-through window, and his smartphone activates customized offers and coupons.

2. Beacon-enabled drive through.

There are hundreds of potential applications. The group Proxbook provides an on-going list.

The Silicon Labs experts have put some relevant information in a whitepaper on developing with Bluetooth beacons. The goal is to help designers get to market quickly with the right, stable solution. It covers:

  • beacon applications.
  • a short history of Bluetooth and its derivatives, including Bluetooth low energy and beacons.
  • the leading beacon pseudo-standards at a high level and in detail.
  • references to field-hardened example code and tools to develop and deploy it.
  • information on end-to-end solutions.

Joe Tillison is a Senior Manager at Silicon Labs. Previously he worked at Bluegiga (a company that was acquired by Silicon Labs) as a director of business development for the Americas West region. Joe spent his early career as a hardware designer on a number of electronics platforms for NASA and military spacecraft at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. He holds a BSEE degree from the University of Oklahoma and an MSE from the University of Colorado, and he has published numerous articles and conference presentations on wireless technologies.

Joe Tillison, Senior Manager, Silicon Labs
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