Choosing the Right Beacon Hardware for Wayfinding Applications
We recently published a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about beacons and how they work, along with an overview of the most common use cases and their different requirements. In today’s post, we’re going to take a deeper dive into one of the most familiar of those use cases, probably the one that is more associated with proximity-based solutions than any other—wayfinding applications.
More than just a tool for helping people get from A to B, wayfinding is part of a broader category of solutions that are in some way related to enhancing the customer or visitor experience. Helping them navigate through a physical space is just one way of making their visit safer, more productive, informative or efficient.
Whether it’s an art lover in a museum, a visitor to a university campus, a vendor in a factory, a traveler in an airport or a huge list of other contexts, facilities of all kinds rely on wayfinding apps to save time and trouble while helping app users to have a better overall experience.
Like any other deployment, wayfinding solutions present unique requirements for the hardware needed to deliver that experience. Hardware that is poorly matched with the job to be done is always going to lead to problems and wayfinding infrastructures are no exception. Understanding the demands of a physical network of beacons given the task of guiding people through often large and complex spaces is key to making the right hardware choices.
Let’s look at the factors to bear in mind while designing a wayfinding deployment.
It’s all about the grid
A simple description of how wayfinding works will illustrate the basic hardware requirements involved. It all starts with a map of the space where the wayfinding app will be active and creating a grid with the locations of the beacons needed to provide adequate coverage. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast!
Despite their seemingly straightforward purpose of directing users on their way to various parts of a facility, wayfinding applications are among the most complex types of proximity-based projects. The primary reason is often the density of the grid required to make sure that a signal of sufficient strength and frequency—we’ll get to that in a minute—reaches everywhere users might be, avoiding the creation of “dead” zones where the app stops working.
The size of a facility is obviously a factor in the layout, and cost, of a beacon grid but it doesn’t stop there. It’s important to understand that the signal that beacons broadcast can be blocked or diluted. Things like lines of sight, open spaces and walls are important when placing beacons on a grid. Also, providing signal coverage in corners and everywhere in spaces with complicated layouts means you will have to add an extra beacon here and there in your grid, with the costs and complications that it brings.
For wayfinding applications, you always have to choose too much over not enough when it comes to signal coverage. This is because wayfinding applications simply don’t work properly without complete, dense coverage with a strong and frequent signal (yes, we’re still getting to that in a minute).
User locations are calculated through trilateration, which pinpoints their place on the map in reference to three or more beacons within their range. Algorithms translate the grid position into a “blue dot” on an interactive map, which is easily interpreted and understood by the user. Without enough beacon hardware to constantly interact with a device, like a smart phone running the dedicated wayfinding app, there isn’t enough information to track and update the user location in real time.
Do you want a wayfinding app that can kind of, sort of tell users where they are, maybe, while losing them completely for a few seconds here and there? Didn’t think so. But that’s exactly what you’ll get if the grid you design for the space to be covered isn’t saturated with beacon signals.
Broadcasting your message
Designing your grid to properly distribute beacon signals for a wayfinding app is half of the hardware equation. The other half is related to the technical realities around the signal itself.
Beacons have something called an interval. It’s the frequency with which they broadcast their signal. Different use cases call for different intervals, depending on how often the location of something or someone needs to be checked. For example, you don’t need a very frequent interval to ping the location of something sitting on a warehouse shelf but that’s exactly what you need when you’re tracking something in constant motion.
Like someone using a wayfinding application, for example.
The effectiveness of wayfinding applications depends completely on getting and processing location information in real time. This, in turn, needs beacons that broadcast at a very low interval (that is, they send out their signal very often) to keep up with the movements of users of the application. Think of it this way—the more often a beacon asks “Where are you?” and a device answers “I’m here”, the more accurately the application can place the user on a map of the area.
But here’s why this is important for decisions about hardware. The highly-precise location information gathered by low intervals comes at the cost of increased use of battery power. Sending out a signal, for example, twice every second will take more power than sending out that same signal once every two seconds. This has obvious implications for the total battery capacity required to drive a wayfinding deployment. Long battery life is a must and the ability to replace batteries less often is a huge plus. As we’ve already mentioned, wayfinding apps require lots of hardware, making fleet management an issue, so reducing the time and effort required to replace batteries or the beacons themselves is definitely something to consider right from the start.
The right tools for the job
Wayfinding applications are probably the most challenging proximity-based projects when it comes to planning and execution. Ensuring total and constant coverage of the space necessarily means that there are a lot of beacons to deploy, calibrate, and manage. Put simply, wayfinding is hardware-intensive.
This makes it all the more important to make the right decisions before a single beacon is mounted on a wall or ceiling. Designing the deployment in the form of a grid and making sure you have the right beacons for the job are the foundation of any successful wayfinding project.
Here at Kontakt.io, we offer two beacons that have proven themselves to be ideal for wayfinding deployments. Our Smart Beacon SB16-2, Smart Beacon SB18-3 and Beacon Pro BP16-3 are at work right now, in airports, museums, hospitals, offices, retail outlets, university campuses and more, all around the world. Their battery life, signal interval and transmission power are designed to deliver high performance in multiple use cases, with wayfinding being the ideal application of their features.