Beacon Dictionary: A Beginner's Guide

9 May 2017

What are beacons? What is fog computing? In tech, getting the jargon right is half the battle. Don't mix up your packets and protocols. Beacons are actually very simple and easy to understand. Here's your primer so you don't have to keep wandering around wondering "seriously, what is a Bluetooth beacon?" Happy jargoning!
API: An Application programming Interface includes protocols and tools for designing application software. This is a way to help programmers make apps based on a given technology more easily.

The million dollar question: What are beacons?

Beacons are small transmitters that use Bluetooth to send a single signal for other devices to pick up. They repeatedly send out packets of data containing a very simple combination of numbers and letters at a rate of around 10 times per second. They’re very simple hardware, usually with little more than a CPU, radio, and batteries inside.
Further reading
Asset tracking: A common beacon use case that involves attaching tags (like Bluetooth beacons) to equipment and other assets. These tags are then tracked in order to generate real-time information on the asset’s location and build up historical information about overall movements.
Further reading
Bluetooth: A standard used to power wireless communication between devices. First developed in the 1990s, this communication method is now integrated in over 8.2 billion devices around the world. It’s highly energy efficient, reaches up to 100 meters, and is used for commercial applications as well as asset tracking and other use cases.
Further reading
Bluetooth SIG: The Bluetooth Special Interest Group oversees the development and usage of the Bluetooth technology. They don’t manufacture or sell actual products.
Deployment: The art of planning and installing a beacon infrastructure.
Eddystone: Google’s open protocol for beacons, developed with Android users in mind. It includes 4 packets of data transmittable by a beacon. It’s unique from iBeacon in that it can be used in Physical Web applications.
Further reading
Fleet: You rarely deploy just one beacon. This is why the entire set of beacons deployed in one business or application is called a fleet. Physical and digital fleet management is one important factor managers must consider before deploying.
Fog computing: A method of extending cloud computing to edge devices in a network. This means keeping a large amount of storage, computation, and communication restricted to edge or end-user devices (like a router or beacon) instead of always sending it to the cloud. This is highly important for the IoT which can require large amounts of data at every turn.
Further reading
Gateway: Firstly, refers to a gateway device, a tool capable of capturing data about tagged assets in a space. More specifically, it can refer to the Gateway, a device which continually scans for beacon signals in range. It then sends data about their health and location to the cloud.
iBeacon: The first beacon protocol, released in 2013. It consists of 3 simple packets of data continually broadcast by the beacon. The language is native to iOS and can wake up apps both on iOS and Android.
Further reading
Industrial IoT: The chapter of the Internet of Things that pertains to industries like manufacturing. This includes many use cases such as smart factories and tools such as beacons, sensors, and even AI. The goal is largely to use new connected technologies to maximize efficiency in large industrial settings.
What is a beacon
Infrastructure: Your beacon installation. This is the commonly used term for describing the beacons you have deployed in a given space or location.
Interval: The Advertising Interval describes the length of time between each beacon packet transmission. This is a key, basic configuration that beacon users must set. Shorter intervals can be more stable, but they also greatly impact battery life and are not always necessary.
IoT: The Internet of Things, the network of physical objects that can connect to the digital world and to one another. The key goal is connectivity between devices and often automated processes or movement between the physical and digital. Beacons are one type of technology in the IoT.
Mesh: A type of network where each node is able to relay all information relevant to the network. This topology can be either decentralized or centrally managed and is known for reliability, resilience, and redundancy.
Packet: A package of data. In this case, it’s regularly transmitted by a beacon and picked up by a receiving device. In other words, it’s a unit used to communicate.
Physical Web: Describes an approach from Google to add the digital (in the form of URLs) to the physical, everyday world. This initiative is powered by Eddystone which sends the appropriate URL from physical, real-world beacons to smart devices. There are already several use cases and projects using the Physical Web.
Further reading
Protocol: A set of guidelines used to help devices communicate. In the case of beacons, the Bluetooth standard uses several different kinds of protocols as defined by Bluetooth SIG.
Push notification: A message that actively pops up on a smart device. Apps can send these even when the app is not open.
RFID: Radio-Frequency Identification is used to identify and track objects in or around a space. This can be both active and passive. Active RFID is a common method for asset tracking.
Further Reading
Comparison of different tracking technologies (whitepaper)
RSSI: The Received Signal Strength Indicator is the strength of the signal from a device (like a beacon) on a receiving device (like a phone). This helps map distance.
SDK: A Software Development Kit helps users create apps for a certain kind of technology. For example, the SDK gives users several tools to make better apps, faster, and with the chance to integrate features much more easily than when done from scratch.
Solution Provider: In the beacon world, these businesses take physical hardware and turn it into a developed product for their own audience. Apps for indoor navigation or a company that will develop specific apps and programs for a given customer are all in the realm of the solution provider.
Tag: In this case, a beacon attached to an object. This terms is mostly common in asset tracking and RTLS use cases. In this case, several kinds of technology can be “tags,” as it simply denotes the tracking mechanism attached to the asset.
Tx Power: Describes the power of the beacon’s transmission. This number corresponds to the actual reach of the transmission and is one of the key, basic configurations every user must set. The longer the reach, the more energy used. This is generally measured in dBm (decibel-milliwatts), but also appears in apps like the Admin App in a numerical rating.
Further reading
UUID: The Universally Unique Identifier is a number broadcast by your beacons that signals to whom they belong. This is related solely to iBeacon.

  • Major: An integer value used by iBeacon to help better define where a beacon is physically located. For example, in a given store.
  • Minor: An integer value used by iBeacon that defines with even more detail where the beacon is located. For example, in a given section of the store.

Further reading

Hannah Augur

Content writer / tech blogger / geek based in Berlin. Hannah reports on all things tech and has a medium-sized tolerance for buzzwords.

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