Everything You Need to Know About Beacon Technology

Everything You Need to Know About Beacon Technology

By Mainak Biswas January 20, 2017 - 2,793 views

A growing number of retail outlets have begun to use beacons to collect and transmit information of various kinds. Beacon technology started to become popular a few years ago, and has become one of the most sought after technologies among industries. Beacons help mobile applications to communicate with devices nearby. If you wish to communicate with your customers as they walk past your store, or when they are at your store looking for products in the aisle, beacons will help you to do that easily, via a mobile app.

What is a beacon?

A beacon is a tiny gadget that transmits radio signals to smart devices such as cellphones and tablets. These radio signals (also known as ‘Advertisements’) contain small packets of data, which can be customized by the developer as per requirements. When a mobile application receives these radio signals, it ‘listens’ to them and initiates an action on the user’s phone. These actions could range from providing the information about a location, a product or a discount that is being offered to something that is more complex. It could be anything that you want to communicate to your target audience when they are physically close to the installed beacons. Communication usually takes place one-way, which is, from a beacon device to a smart device.

How does it work?

Beacons are quite different from Bluetooth devices, though they use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a name that is confusingly similar to its more popular technology, the good old Bluetooth. However, this version of Bluetooth consumes very little energy and the battery life of each beacon can last up to 2 to 3 years, depending on usage. They are usually installed on walls, ceilings, shelves and other places, where they can easily be hidden with a little effort, without marring the interior decor.

If there are no obstructions, smartphones can detect beacons that have been placed from 70 meters to 400 meters away. The only condition for beacons to work is that the user has switched on Bluetooth on his or her mobile device. On iOS, beacons wake up applications automatically, whereas, on Android devices, apps need to run in the background to identify a beacon nearby.

A BLE-enabled beacon uses only 1-20% of power a full Bluetooth application might use. Moreover, BLE-enabled beacons are almost 60-80% cheaper than traditional Bluetooth. The industry currently uses iBacon, a set of protocols that Apple recommends to developers when it comes to developing applications that are beacon-enabled. However, it needs to be remembered that Apple does not manufacture beacon hardware itself.

A beacon’s Apple-standardized BLE Advertisement consists of four pieces of information, in a packet.

UUID: A 16-byte string that helps in discriminating between a large number of related beacons. A large chain of supermarkets may hold the same UUID, regardless of which branch.

  1. Major: A 2-byte packet that that groups a smaller set of beacons together. Useful in a single store or supermarket.
  2. Minor: This identifies individual beacons and is of 2 bytes. This particular beacon may help you to locate a customer within a store.
  3. Tx power: This helps you to determine your user’s proximity from the beacon.


Where can beacons be used?


  • Beacons can be used across retail locations to communicate with customers.
  • They can also be used to help people navigate indoors.
  • There have been many cases where beacons have helped businesses to track people, especially to thwart shoplifting.
  • A few other uses of bacons include automatic locking and unlocking of computers, requesting for payments on mobile wallets, requesting for feedback, and other such uses.


An example of a successful implementation of beacon technology


One of our clients in Italy requested for a beacon-based shopping experience, to help make shopping at their supermarkets frictionless. Beacon-based shopping helped the clients’ customers to locate the closest branch of their favorite supermarket and reduce travel time. These tiny embedded beacons provided customers with information regarding products, and sometimes even suggesting or recommending what they might probably like. Beacon-based shopping also helped customers to discover discounts, loyalty features, skip queues to pay quickly and go back home. To learn more about how beacons helped to make shopping a pleasant experience go through our case studies read this.


A few limitations of beacon : –


  • Requires installation and the infrastructure needs to be implemented from the scratch.
  • Some businesses may find beacons aesthetically challenging.
  • Customers may find the technology invasive and may switch off their Bluetooth altogether, defeating the purpose.
  • Signal interference with Wi-Fi, NFC, GPS and other BLEs may cause some disturbance.
  • Newer technologies may arrive in the near future, replacing BLE, which would render an investment in beacon hardware expensive.


Where is the technology heading?


Beacons are being increasingly used by retail chains. This is likely to diversify in 2017 and beyond, Other industries will find beacons useful too, and will see an increased use at airports, public spaces, corporate lobbies, hotels, and other such places where users need be identified and communicated with. Location-based communication is going to get big in 2017 and beacons will be an enduring part of this evolution.


Beacons have the power to customize interactions with customers and this is one of the reasons why retailers were the first to adopt them. However its applications are far reaching and other industries such as banks, security agencies, governments, manufacturing units, warehouses, and others will begin to adopt beacon technology at a rapid rate. In the near future, thanks to IoT and other technologies, any object could become a beacon itself, and when used with the right sensors, a variety of information can be communicated. Certainly, this is a technology that will grow bigger this year.


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