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iBeacon

The iBeacon brand name has been introduced in 2013 by Apple Inc. It is a proprietary standard for identification and inhouse navigation based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

The technology is supported by Apple iOS version 7 and higher and by Android version 4.3 and higher.

iBeacons

Technology

iBeacons broadcast their universally unique identifier to nearby devices on a regular basis. The technology enables smartphones and computer tablets with a ginstr app to perform actions when in close proximity to an iBeacon.

iBeacons are only a 1-way transmitter to the receiving smartphone and necessitate a ginstr app installed on the device to interact with the iBeacons.

An Android smartphone receiving an iBeacon transmission can approximate the distance from the iBeacon. The distance (between transmitting iBeacon and receiving device) is categorized into 3 distinct ranges:

Immediate
Within a few centimetres
Near
Within a couple of meters
Far
Greater than 10 meters away

The maximum range of an iBeacon transmission will depend on the location and placement, obstructions in the environment and where the device is being stored. Standard beacons have an approximate range of 70 meters. Long range beacons can reach up to 450 meters.

The number of the iBeacon transmission per period of time depends on the configuration of the iBeacons and can be altered using device specific methods. Both the rate and the transmit power have an effect on the iBeacon battery life.

Power consumption

iBeacon power consumption
The power consumption of iBeacons is very low; iBeacons can run on a typical coin cell battery up to several years depending on the iBeacon configuration.
Smartphone power consumption
iBeacon communication provides a much reduced impact on smartphone battery life compared with GPS.

Form factor

iBeacon compatible transmitters come in a variety of form factors, including small coin cell devices, USB sticks, and generic Bluetooth 4.0 capable USB dongles.

iBeacon use cases

iBeacons do not push notifications to receiving smartphones (other than their own identity). However, ginstr apps can use signals received from iBeacons to trigger their own push notifications or other actions.

Monitoring

A typical application is broadcasting messages at a specific point of interest, for example a bus stop, a room, or a more specific location like a vending machine.

This signal can be used for the following purposes:

  • detect that the user of a ginstr app has entered the area covered by an iBeacon
  • detect that the user of a ginstr app has left the area covered by an iBeacon
  • detect that the user of a ginstr app is still inside the area covered by an iBeacon
  • detect that the user of a ginstr app is still outside the area covered by an iBeacon

Examples:

Bus stop detection
A ginstr app for drivers of public transportation buses can find out the current bus stop and subsequently read the name of the next bus stop from the database.
Warehousing
A ginstr app can detect which digger shovels are currently in the warehouse without physically going to each individual digger shovel.

Ranging

As opposed to monitoring, which enables users to detect movement in-and-out of range of the iBeacons, ranging provides an unlimited list of iBeacons detected in a given region, along with the estimated distance from the user's device to each beacon.

An iBeacon broadcast has the ability to approximate when a user has entered, exited, or lingered in region. Depending on a customer's proximity to a beacon, they are able to receive different levels of interaction at each of these three ranges.

Fingerprinting
A list of iBeacons detected at a given location allows amongst others to name such a location and to store the name of this location along with the list of detected iBeacons and their signal strength.
This can then later be used to detect current location by comparing the stored iBeacon fingerprint with currently received iBeacons and their signal strengths.
Indoor positioning system
With the help of an iBeacon, a smartphone's software can approximately find its relative location to an iBeacon in a store.

iBeacon deployment

An iBeacon deployment consists of one or more iBeacon devices that transmit their own unique identification number to the local area. A ginstr app may then look up the iBeacons and perform various functions, such as notifying the user.

Where to buy iBeacons

The internet is full of suppliers of iBeacons providing a large number of form factors and additional functionality such as:

  • temperature sensor
  • humidity sensor
  • environmental air pressure sensor
  • shock sensor
  • PIR sensor
  • light sensor
  • permanent power connector
  • and many more

Unfortunately not all iBeacons are working as expected:

  • their signal strength might be varying a lot which might make them unsuitable for fingerprinting and other location based applications
  • they might not work with some Smartphone models
  • they might not be durable due to poor materials or high power consumption
  • it might be hard to connect with them because of a poor antenna

Therefore we recommend to consult with ginstr before buying iBeacons in order to avoid such problems.

iBeacon vs. NFC

iBeacons and NFC are both technologies which can be used for identification, but they are NOT competing technologies because they both serve completely different use cases:

NFC
NFC is often used for identifying items, persons, animals etc.
iBeacons are not optimal for this use case because in case several items are close together then it is not possible to distinguish them precisely without additional information.
Example:
In case there are two digger shovels on a construction site each equipped with an iBeacon it is unclear which digger shovel is identified by which iBeacon.
Using NFC tags this will be clear because when reading one NFC tag the other one is most likely more than 2 cm away and therefore will not be recognised at the same time.
iBeacons
iBeacons are mostly used for identifying locations.
For location identification NFC can be used as well so for this use case the use case specific details determine which of the two technologies suits best.


There are additional significant differences between NFC and iBeacon technology:

Price
While NFC tags start from less than 1€, iBeacons typically cost more than 20€ per device.
Total cost of ownership
NFC tags are maintenance-free whereas iBeacons require a battery replacement once in a while.