One of the hot new technologies we’ve become excited about is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), specifically BLE beacons. With iOS 7, Apple created a simple interface for apps to use BLE beacons. Apple calls it iBeacon, and with iOS 7.1, Apple has scored a home run.
What is a beacon? A beacon is just a very low power Bluetooth transmitter that emits a simple signal. Your app just listens for beacons. Once it recognizes one, it uses the code from the beacon to provide the user with something useful, for instance, providing the user with information on their location, or perhaps something about the product they are standing in front of.
You’ve probably already seen some beacon-based advertising. You know those little tags you place on your possessions so you can keep track of them? Those are BLE beacons. When you’re close enough to get a signal, the app tells you how close you are, and you watch the gauge as you wander about the room, trying to find that remote control with the “hotter colder” method.
Beacons can be used to give you information about the nearest product. Suppose you went to Best Buy and as you stopped in front of a TV or refrigerator, it gave you all the statistics on that unit? If you lingered, it could even offer you a deal. With your agreement, the app could also notify the sales staff that you may need assistance in that department.
Beacons are not GPS. They can’t tell you where they are, or in what direction. But if your app finds a beacon and knows where it is, it can tell you where you are. Vice versa, if you’re within the vicinity of a beacon and the app knows where you are, it knows where the beacon is. Think of the cool games and treasure hunts that you could develop with that.
You can also turn your iPhone into a beacon. Users of an app can tell when they’re near another user. Users who don’t even know each other could interact in the same game as long as they happen to be in the same vicinity. Someone shows up in your tag game app. Tag them before they tag you.
Stores are now using beacons to help customers find their way around the store. Museums and nature centers can use them to tell visitors about what they are seeing. Major League Baseball is installing them in ball parks to help fans find their seats or the bathrooms. You’re going to be hearing a lot about beacons in the next couple years.
We’ve been using Apple’s iBeacon API’s, and they are really great. It takes only a few hours to integrate into an app, and is one of the easiest parts of an app. Once we identify a beacon is when all the hard work starts – displaying the useful information, logging the beacon’s location to a remote database, or whatever you want to do.
We’ve also bought beacons from several different manufacturers to find out what we like and don’t like. Some are great, some are junk. Battery type and battery life varies a lot. Two brands we tried performed perfectly when left for weeks in Minnesota cars, and this winter was about as cold as it gets here. One brand we tried is of such poor quality that some units didn’t even work brand new. But we’ve got good recommendations for you on what we’ve discovered.
As for Apple’s iOS 7.1 home run; you can now receive beacon notifications even when an app is not running. Users no longer need to keep your app running in the background to get notifications that beacons are in range.
So if you’re interested in incorporating BLE beacons into your app, please contact us so we can discuss the possibilities. We think this technology is going to be huge, and we’d love to help you stay on the leading edge.