What are beacons | 2023 guide

Marc Kranendonk
Marc Kranendonk
Content Manager
September 13, 2022

So, Beacons. For me, writing about beacons began…well, it began as you might expect. In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit- I'm sorry. It’s been difficult to write about them without making a reference to Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t help that I watched the new Amazon Prime show around the time I was writing this blog. All I can think about is Aragorn bursting through that door at Rohan every time I type or read the word ‘beacon’. I’ve got Tolkein on the brain. I’ll try my best to withhold any further Lord of the Rings talk going forward (except for the next little paragraph). 

Like in Lord of the Rings, the beacons we’re talking about today also send signals to communicate a message, but are an entirely different technology and for an entirely different reason. 

What are beacons?

A definition is always a good place to start because when I first heard about beacons I quickly questioned the difference with what they do as opposed to geofences. Well, there is a difference, obviously, and that starts with the technology itself. 

Beacons are small bluetooth devices that send repeated wireless signals that smart devices, like your smartphone, receive when in proximity through bluetooth technology. The typical range of a beacon is between 2-5 meters but without physical obstruction a message can be sent out to a device up to 30 meters. Typically in an in-store scenario the 2-5 meter radius is more common, and unlike a geofence, beacons operate in a smaller range and at even greater location accuracy (down to centimeters). The specific bluetooth technology that beacons operate under are Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). It’s with BLE technology that beacons can transmit signals to nearby devices.

To contrast, geofences send messages to devices within a virtual circle or polygon radius. Beacons on the other hand are a physical object (see image) that sends signals once a smart device is in range. So, the core idea stays the same -sending location-specific information- but the approach is very different. 

So, how does a beacon send a message? It’s not just about detecting a mobile device because that’s not exactly who the beacon is ‘talking’ to. The beacon is actually communicating with an app, and it's the app who detects the beacon first. Once it does, the app will send location-specific information to the server that the beacon is part of. The data transferred is specific to the app and to the customer’s profile. The exchange of data determines what information will be sent back to the device. What can be done with that data and what information gets sent back? We’ll get to that.

Types of beacon formats

There are a few examples of beacon formats that are available today. Each format has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the choice of format depends on what specific requirements you need for your app. 

  1. iBeacon: I think it’s obvious where this one comes from. Apple’s proprietary beacon format, which is widely used in iOS apps and devices. iBeacon is open to all developers and manufacturers, allowing for widespread adoption and integration into a variety of applications. iBeacon is your go-to guy, popular among retail companies looking to develop their retail-loyalty app for their in-store experiences. 
  2. Eddystone: An open-source beacon format developed by Google, which is compatible with Android and iOS devices. Eddystone is unique because it supports multiple frame types, allowing beacons to transmit different types of information. That includes URLs, and telemetry data, which can be used to monitor beacon health and performance. Eddystone also supports a feature called EIDs, which is short for Ephemeral Identifiers (such a simple word, I know). This feature allows beacons to rotate their unique identifier on a frequent basis to prevent unauthorized parties to track users’ movements or access their personal data. 
  3. AltBeacon: Although it sounds like a new political view spectrum, it’s actually an open-source beacon format developed by Radius Networks that allows developers to create location-aware mobile apps for use in non-Apple devices. A main feature of AltBeacon is its longer broadcast range, making it more effective in large spaces or outdoor environments. AltBeacon also has a strong focus on privacy and security. It has an opt-in or opt-out of receiving beacon signals for users, and it does not transmit any personal identifiable information. 
  4. UriBeacon: Also created by Google, UriBeacon allows beacons to broadcast Universal Resource Identifiers (URIs) to nearby mobile devices. Not to get confused with URLs, URIs are a type of web address, and they can be used to direct uses to web-based content or experiences. A URI can be used to specify the location of a web page, image, video or any other type of online resource. Therefore, a UriBeacon directs you to a very specific resource that a user is looking for. It’s a convenient way to deliver targeted content or experiences to users without the need to download a specific app or scan a QR code.  

Applications of beacons

Beacons can be applied in a number of different ways and industries.

For retail and shopping, beacons can be used to send targeted advertisements and notifications to customers in retail stores, as well as to track the movements of customers and products. iBeacon has been used in retail and shopping settings to improve the shopping experience and drive sales. We’ll elaborate on this later when we expand on beacons for the in-store experience. 

In hospitality and tourism, beacons can be used to provide location-based information and services to visitors in hotels, museums, and other tourist destinations. Eddystones has been used in tourism and hospitality settings to provide location-based information and services to their visitors. The Museum of London (not to be confused with the British Museum, you know, the place full of non-British historical artifacts) used Eddystone beacons to provide visitors with information about exhibits and artifacts. 

Beacons have use in the healthcare industry too. They can be used to track the location of medical equipment and personnel as well as to monitor patient movements and vital signs. That has been achieved before through AltBeacon. Some hospitals have used AltBeacon to track the movements of IV pumps and other medical devices. 

Beacons for the in-store experience

As seen, beacons can be applied to a variety of different industries and scenarios. No matter the application, beacons are most effective at short range and indoors. 

To get started with beacons for the in-store experience you need the following three things:

  1. Location permissions
  2. The app 
  3. Bluetooth

Take one of those things out and the beacon will not do its job. It’s therefore important to make sure your users have the app downloaded, understand and accept the location permissions required, and most importantly, have bluetooth enabled. I honestly have no idea why I didn’t swap “location permissions” and “the app” in the list because it now doesn’t match the order I’m describing here. Maybe it should be:

  1. The app
  2. Location permissions
  3. Bluetooth

Final list, in order, I guess. Happy? You’re welcome.

Deadpool bowing

Anyway, the data transferred from the app to the beacon is used to send the user personalized information. In retail and shopping, that can be a product promotion or letting them know about a general sale. But, with the ability to track the movements of customers, products and other data, it can do a little more than that. On the app the customer has an online profile, with a purchase history and perhaps even a wishlist. Knowing their purchase history you may want to give them recommendations and specific deals they’d appreciate based on what they bought from you. You can also use that information to let them know an item on their wishlist is in stock at the current store they’re at. Moreover, you could give them a personalized deal for that wishlist item should they want to buy it at that moment too. Macys did this through iBeacon to send push notifications to customers who entered their stores, offering them discounts and special offers. See where I’m going here? It’s targeted location-based marketing/advertising that goes down to the individual level. At this level of depth, a retail store will have an easier time convincing customers that receiving store-specific notifications while they shop is worth it. 

Advantages and challenges of beacons

It always comes down to checks and balances. Beacons have their advantages and limitations that you should be aware of. 

Beacons can offer a range of benefits, such as improved customer engagement, enhanced safety and security, and better logistics and transportation management. We’ve seen them not only effectively used for location-based marketing, but also for important practical services such as the tracking of medical equipment and personnel in hospitals. 

One limitation of beacons is the technical challenge in setting up and managing beacons. Not everyone is familiar with this kind of technology and maybe off put to try it. Hopefully with a blog like this some of you might come away with a better understanding and motivation to give them a spin. That hurdle aside, the main issue with beacons and what is common with anything that is about collection of data, is privacy. Beacons raise an ethical and social implication, such as concerns about surveillance and privacy, and the potential for unintended consequences and misuse. Data privacy violations remain a hot topic, and the best way a company can make sure they do not violate or misuse data is by remaining transparent and adhering to regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

So why beacons and not geofences? 

It’s not necessarily a this or that scenario. In fact, it isn’t at all, they can co-exist. Yes, there are certain advantages to beacon technology. For one, unlike geofences, it doesn’t use GPS so battery drainage is a non-factor. But one works at a far larger scale than the other. Beacons are great (basically ideal) for the in-store experience. They work in those small ranges and have incredible accuracy. Utilizing both geofences and beacons can optimize your brick and mortar’s ability to attract customers and increase loyalty. For your customers, knowing that the app is working to improve and personalize the experience of being in your store gives them a sense of care. A “customer-first” mentality that makes it worthwhile to download and use your app. 

Future trends and developments in beacons

In the future beacons will be used to signal Gondor’s call for aid, and hopefully Rohan will answer (I couldn’t help myself). 

King Théoden: And Rohan will answer.

In reality, there are several emerging trends and developments that will shape the future of beacon technology. 

Beacon technology is already used in retail and hospitality industries to improve the customer experience, and in the future we expect to see more widespread adoption of beacons in these industries. From personalized messaging and promotions, to location-based notification, and contactless payments, businesses will look for new ways to engage customers and drive sales. 

Perhaps we’ll see beacons being used in the Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) world too. They could be used to provide location-based information such as audio guides and interactive maps while users wear either an AR or VR headset. The tourism and entertainment sectors might have a field day with this as a way to attract visitors to their museums and hotspots. Although, I can imagine it must be entertaining to watch people wander around with these headsets in the same way I’m amused by watching people at a silent disco. Unnecessary tangent here but if you’re at a silent disco, take the headphones off at either the chorus of a song, or before and after it. I guarantee you’ll have a chuckle at the contrast between those who are way out of tune, and those who are incoherently trying to pretend they know the lyrics. Ok, back to the future trends and developments (you see what I’m cooking here?). 

We’ll certainly see a push in development for improved security features to protect users from unauthorized access or tampering. This includes features such as secure transmission protocols, device authentication, and encrypted data storage. With privacy and data protection being a main concern when it comes to the use of beacon technology, there’s social and ethical pressure to instill confidence in their use. 

Beacons tend to not use much battery life given their short range and low-demand. A beacon battery can be kept alive for as little as 6 months and upwards to a year. So, it’s not a concern or weakness of the technology per say. However, an increase in range could mean a need to improve the battery life. An advancement in battery technology should lead to a more efficient beacon that can operate for longer periods and have a greater range without requiring frequent recharges. 

Beacon technology can be integrated with other IoT devices to help create smart environments that can automatically adjust based on user behavior and preferences. As I’m typing this out it feels like I’m describing the home of Tony Stark (the guy Elon Musk aspires to be) because a “smart” home could use beacons to detect when a user enters a room and automatically adjust the temperature and lighting to their preferred settings. Absolutely no one will get tired of giving a house tour and mentioning that kind of feature in their house. Forget the flat-screen tv and kitchen island, my house is smart. 

Overall, the future of beacon technology is exciting and I’m sure with businesses and industries continuing to innovate and emerge, we'll see more clever uses of beacons in the years ahead. 

Got the gist?

Beacons aren’t a new technology, in fact they’re almost a decade old by now. But they can be underestimated, and often overlooked. The attention usually goes to geofences, and that makes sense. However, having both technologies in the arsenal can be hugely beneficial to your customers' indoor experience. For instance, it’s the reason people download retail loyalty apps, they want to feel like an individual in a sea of customers, with their own deals and product recommendations. That’s an effective avenue in building brand loyalty, and one of many benefits of using beacons. 

If you want to know more about how beacons work, feel free to contact us

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Marc Kranendonk
Marc Kranendonk
Content Manager
September 13, 2022