How businesses use beacons to power location-based experiences

Bluetooth beacons are a powerful tool for delivering location-based experiences. Beacons allow businesses to detect accurately whether a user has passed through an order box at a drive-thru, pinpoint if a user is in a specific store in a crowded mall, and supercharge attribution models. In this blog, we will cover the basics about beacons, permissions requesting, and common use cases.

Beacon basics

So what is a beacon? A beacon is a small piece of hardware that uses the Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, developed by the same working group that brought us Bluetooth. Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, is what it sounds like: a Bluetooth protocol that provides a much reduced power consumption compared with traditional Bluetooth. It does this by dramatically simplifying the handshake, or what is transferred, between two devices. And, it doesn’t require pairing.

There are two major protocols available that govern the interaction between hardware beacons and devices: Apple’s iBeacon and Google’s Eddystone. Radar currently supports the iBeacon protocol, with Eddystone support coming soon.

Beacons constantly broadcast a signal, known as an advertising packet. As an app developer wanting to take advantage of this technology, you need to build functionality into your app that listens for these packets and can read the data they contain. The data that beacons send out depends on the protocol used, as mentioned above. For example, the iBeacon specification says:

Field Size Description
UUID 16 bytes Application developers should define a UUID specific to their app and deployment use case.
Major 2 bytes Further specifies a specific iBeacon and use case. For example, this could define a sub-region within a larger region defined by the UUID.
Minor 2 bytes Allows further subdivision of region or use case, specified by the application developer.

UUID, Major, and Minor definitions help you organize your beacons by geography, type, placement, etc. It’s up to you how to define these, but once you set them up, you will then want to reference these same IDs when adding your beacons into Radar.

Beacons can be ranged, or detected, on the single to low double digit meter scale. A real-world estimate for a high end range is 40-50 meters, although Estimote, a popular beacon vendor notes that their beacons can technically be ranged at up to 70 meters.

Ranging, monitoring, and requesting permissions

We’ve used the word ranged above to refer to a client listening for a beacon’s advertisement. However, there really are two ways to do this: ranging and monitoring. Ranging beacons means actively scanning nearby beacons, while monitoring beacons refers to detecting movement in/out of their range in the background.

Ranging beacons allows you to see all nearby beacons as well as relevant attributes, while monitoring notifies you when you are in/out of range of a particular beacon. On iOS, the user needs to grant location permissions (foreground if you just want to range beacons, background if you want to both range and/or monitor). If you are using the Eddystone beacon protocol (rather than iBeacon), Bluetooth permissions will also be required on iOS. On Android, you need both location permissions and Bluetooth permissions.

Use cases for beacons

Beacons have a wide range of applicable use cases in the location space, all of which can be powered by Radar’s Beacons functionality in conjunction with the physical beacons themselves. Let’s have a look at some of the most common applications.

  • Indoor wayfinding – Beacons can help you build an indoor navigation experience. Imagine a shopping mall with beacons strategically placed at busy intersections or central gathering areas. You could build a simple navigation app by mapping out the stores in the mall, and directing a user based on which beacon(s) they are passing.

  • Vertical wayfinding – GPS can’t tell you what floor of a high rise you are on, but location gathered from beacons can. Use beacons to provide users with navigation and context specific to the floor they are on. This isespecially useful in urban environments.

  • Outdoor micro-detection – Want to know when a customer is about to go through the drive-through lane so you can personalize the order board for them? Or perhaps you want to detect the exact parking spot a customer is in so you can bring their item or order out to them. This is all possible using hardware.

  • Indoor micro-detection – While geofencing itself can often solve the problem of detecting a user’s location indoors, GPS accuracy can be reduced when inside. Own a store in a busy shopping mall and need to know if a user is actually in your store? Maybe you want to provide a self-checkout option, but need to verify the user is actually in the store before letting them use it. You can use a beacon in the store to provide high accuracy location updates and unlock that use case.

Using existing hardware

Beacons can unlock a lot of value for businesses and you don’t always need to purchase physical, specialized beacons. For instance, you may just have beacon-ready hardware in your physical locations right now. For example, the wildly popular Cisco Meraki access points can be used as Bluetooth beacons. iOS devices such as iPads can also be used as beacons. In both of these instances, on-premise modes — such as in-store self checkout use cases — can be developed with existing hardware and beacon technology.

Beacons and Radar

Ready to start harnessing beacons and need help building the functionality in your app to range and act on beacon detection? Check out Radar’s Beacons documentation, and then dive in with our Android and iOS SDKs (or use a hybrid framework).

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