A beacon is a small Bluetooth radio transmitter.
It’s kind of like a lighthouse: it repeatedly transmits a single signal that other devices can see. Instead of emitting visible light, though, it broadcasts a radio signal that is made up of a combination of letters and numbers transmitted on a regular interval of approximately 1/10th of a second. A Bluetooth-equipped device like a smartphone can “see” a beacon once it’s in range, much like sailors looking for a lighthouse to know where they are.
But what is a beacon like on the inside?
What do they look like? Beacons are very small, simple devices. If you crack one open, you won’t find thirty motherboards and oodles of wires. You’ll find a CPU, radio, and batteries. Beacons often use small lithium chip batteries (smaller and more powerful than AA batteries) or run via connected power like USB plugs. They come in different shapes and colors, may include accelerometers, temperature sensors, or unique add-ons but all of them have one thing in common—they transmit a signal.
What is a beacon actually transmitting?
It’s not throwing just any old message into the air. It’s transmitting a unique ID number that tells a listening device which beacon it’s next to.
Really, it’s just a code name.
For example, when a shopping mall installs beacons in their shop, all of the beacons will have certain IDs, registered in their dedicated app. This means a smartphone app can immediately recognize that the incoming ID is important and that it’s from that particular mall. The ID, however, has little meaning on its own; it’s entirely up to an app or other program to recognize what it means.
What happens next? That depends on what the owner has programmed it to do. One code could trigger the app to send a coupon. Another could offer navigation services. The possibilities are nearly endless. All the beacon has to do is connect your exact location to the app, and the rest is up to the program.
What’s happening behind the computer screen?
Beacons are incredibly misunderstood. They are not tracking you. They’re not interested in that.
They’re just broadcasting a signal. Here’s why this signal can trigger so many different things.
An online platform (for example, the Kontakt.io dashboard), lets you manage, configure, and update all your beacons. From there, you may develop your own app or use a further program called a Content Management System. These programs allow you to associate links, images, videos, and texts with individual beacons. Many of these platforms are made to be highly user-friendly. This means they are often sleek and easy-to-use with no coding required. For example, a program could let a museum owner add brand new capabilities to their gallery app (like quizzes or audio guides) just by typing questions or text. The program then does all the hard work automatically and stores everything in the cloud so your app can easily access it.
How do beacons connect to the web?
You’ve probably heard of Bluetooth. It’s present in 90% of all phones and has been around since the 1990s. So what’s changed? Why is it so important now? While many consumers don’t use Bluetooth on a daily basis, it’s hugely important to the Internet of Things. Being in 90% of the world’s phones, Bluetooth technology means beacons are compatible with devices consumers use on a daily basis around the globe.
Bluetooth provides the infrastructure for the entire beacon ecosystem. It’s a standard for sending data over short distances, a wireless technology not so dissimilar from WiFi. This is why beacon hardware can be simple. There is already a web of Bluetooth around you that can connect beacons and smart devices and almost anything else.
Why do we say “BLE beacons”?
BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. It’s a power-efficient version of Bluetooth originally introduced in 2010. BLE’s low energy needs are vital to beacons, as it allows them to run for years on tiny coin-cell batteries. It also consumes far less energy than the old and clunky Bluetooth. In fact, BLE is a major driver in the IoT, allowing technology to last longer with smaller parts.
The next question is, how do beacons actually enable connecting and transferring data?
How does a beacon communicate?
Beacon hardware is relatively simple, but the way it triggers actions can get a little complicated. Every system is a little different, but here’s how a beacon communicates, in a nutshell:
The beacon sends out its ID numbers about ten times every second (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on its settings). A nearby Bluetooth-enabled device, like your phone, picks up that signal. When a dedicated app recognizes it, it links it to an action or piece of content stored in the cloud and displays it to the user. You can “teach” your app how to react to a beacon signal by developing using third-party tools.
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Couldn’t the beacon data just be hardcoded into the app?
Why go through the cloud? It sounds so unnecessary!
The #1 reason you don’t want data hardcoded on your phone is space. Keeping content on the cloud makes your app light and keeps your phone from being bogged down. No one wants to download bulky apps–especially when they’re on the go.
Reason #2 is that content attached to beacons does change. But, remember how beacons only broadcast an ID? That ID doesn’t change too often but the content behind it does. Say you’re a store owner and you want to run a new sales campaign or add a promotion to your existing offerings. If your beacon data is hardcoded, you would have to completely re-release the app. Storing data in the cloud means beacons can be updated almost instantly. It means the app doesn’t have to be altered or re-coded. Once the information is online, it’s ready to go to the beacon.So, what is a beacon going to do to help you? Let’s try an example.
So, what is a beacon going to do to help you? Let’s try an example.
You’re going on a trip to some far-off country—nice! But you don’t speak the language—crap!
On the way to the hotel, you arrive at a big train station. The station is huge, and you have no idea where to go. How can you get directions that are reliable, clear, and in a language you understand?
Luckily, the train station owner planned for problems just like this. You see a sign indicating that the train station has an app. You download it. A beacon placed on the wall sends out a continuous signal, and, once you activate the app, you’re able to make use out of it. The app takes the beacon ID and checks what information is paired with that particular beacon.
It recognizes that you are standing in front of the donut shop by Gate 14. You enter your destination, and the app generates a clear map to show you the way there. When you turn down the wrong path, it redirects you.
Since you have plenty of time, the app also lets you know that the coffee shop to your left has a special deal going on. The app tells you all the train schedules and delays for the station.
You catch your train on time and realize it’s not so stressful after all.
Where did beacons begin?
Today’s beacons began with the introduction of iBeacon. iBeacon is simply a protocol that lets Bluetooth devices transmit very small bits of data.
Then Google entered the scene. In 2015, Google came out with Eddystone, their iBeacon alternative. Since then, iBeacon and Eddystone have ruled the proximity market.
Now, the technology is continuing to develop with cooler capabilities, better hardware, and more diverse solutions.
What are all these numbers?! (reading beacon specs)
What is a beacon packet? Do you need those? Here are some notes on beacon specs and details.
- Battery life: Most beacons start with an 18-24 month battery life. However, some beacons with certain requirements and uses last some 6-8 months. Beacons with energy-saving capabilities can last over 5 years.
How can beacons last so long with such tiny batteries? Easy! They don’t actually work that hard. They let Bluetooth do all the work, and Bluetooth is incredibly energy efficient.
- Supported format: Does your beacon use the iBeacon protocol? Eddystone? Beacons usually support both of these and sometimes the hardware manufacturer’s own format (like AltBeacon).
- Interval: How often can the beacon transmit its message? How often you need your beacon to transmit depends on your specific scenario. (ms=millisecond)
- Tx Power: The Transmission Power describes how far a beacon can transmit data. This can be as little as 4 meters, but many reach some 50-90 meters. However, it is not necessary that this number be humongous. A 50-meter range beacon can be just as useful as a 90-meter depending on the specific use.
- Packets: A beacon’s “packet” is the data it transmits. This just describes the kind of information it is able to transmit. For example, iBeacon contains one packet (iBeacon itself) while Eddystone has three separate ones.
- Sensors: Now, beacons are coming out with extra capabilities. They may include accelerometers, light or movement sensors.
- NFC / RFID: Beacons are still very new. For some users, it’s highly important that legacy technologies (like NFC and RFID tags) and beacons work together.
- Price: Beacons can cost as little as $5. Will such a cheap beacon be worth it? Well, that really depends on what you want, but many users will find that ultra-cheap beacons simply don’t get the job done. Expect one ordinary beacon to run $15-25.
What is a beacon used for?
Proximity technology is still really popular in retail settings. Pay a visit to Macy’s, American Eagle, or the Tokyo airport, and you may find beacons in place. But beacons are becoming even more popular each year. This means you’re likely to find them just about anywhere you move.
Beacons are already being used for:
- Tracking: One of the beacons’ more practical use cases is something many of us would never have guessed. In manufacturing and transport, managers need to know exactly where goods are at any given time. By attaching beacons, they can always have that information. In fact, they can even see the information from previous days or weeks.
- Navigation: Creating accurate “GPS for indoor navigation” is a popular beacon use case. What Google Maps does for the outdoors, beacons can do for the indoors. They can tell you where you are and where you’re going in a museum, festival, or train station.
- Interaction: Beacons can make reactions automated and trigger events. When you enter a room, the projector starts. It sends notifications or acts as a loyalty card. If you make a purchase at your local cafe, beacons help the app register that you were there. On your tenth entry, you get a free latte—awesome!
- Security: Whether it’s making sure patients don’t go in the wrong wing or alerting factory workers to dangerous changes, beacons can automatically send notifications (either to app users or property owners) about a safety issue. Beacons can also be paired with geofencing to add an extra layer to data security.
- Analysis: Data is one of the biggest tools at a company’s disposal. Beacons help generate data on where customers are going or where common problems occur on an assembly line. The online platform can store information on which beacons are being triggered and how users are interacting with them.
Think you’ve mastered the beacon? Can you answer the five following questions?
- What is a beacon ID?
- What is a beacon packet?
- What are five main beacon use cases?
- What is a beacon range?
Here’s one final haiku from us to you, so you never have to ask “what is a beacon” again:
On the wall a spark
Beacon data flings and pings
Here’s a free coffee
That’s more or less how it works.
Still have questions? Have your own beacon haiku? Tweet us!
Want to learn even more about the beacon industry? Check out our complete Guide to Beacons!