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Beacons FAQ

Huladyne Labs has been experimenting with Beacons, and we are currently building this capability into iOS apps for our customers. We’ve developed this FAQ for our customers to learn more about the technology and its capabilities.

What are beacons?

Beacons are small low-cost devices that transmit a periodic Bluetooth signal to nearby receivers such as smartphones and tablets. The transmitted signal is very simple, but it contains enough information to allow a nearby smartphone to:

  1. determine the identity of the beacon, and
  2. determine the approximate distance between the beacon and the smartphone.

One way to think about beacons is to imagine ‘indoor GPS’, in that they help a smartphone know where it is in relation to the beacon(s) in a space. They can be used to guide and position smartphones in locations that are impossible to reach by GPS.

But beacons are more than ‘indoor GPS’. Once the smartphone has identified the beacon and its distance, apps on the smartphone can then use this information to perform a variety of tasks. Examples include providing a customer coupons in a retail setting, guiding conference goers around a venue, or performing automatic checkout as a customer passes thru a checkout zone.

When an application combines this location detection with additional user information, a company can create a very personalized experience for the user. Even more, the app can interact with internet- or cloud-based services to provide context aware, real-time information for the user.

Besides retail, what other some other use cases for beacons?

Some typical and edge-case uses outside of retail applications:

  • Using beacons to provide location aware messaging and alerts within airports.
  • Locating passengers in jeopardy of missing a flight because they are stuck in security lines.
  • Conducting treasure hunts at conferences.
  • Augmenting a speaker’s presentation at a conference.
  • Activating mobile payments when user within the proximity of a payment area.
  • Providing tours of theme parks and museums.
  • Registering attendees at music festivals, and providing additional band information inside the venue.
  • Enhancing the fan experience at sporting events.
  • Checking attendance of students.
  • Tracking the fitness of dogs(!)

What is a UUID? What are Major and Minor IDs?

A UUID is a unique identifier given to a beacon or set of beacons. In addition to the UUID, there are also Major IDs and Minor IDs given to a beacon which further distinguish the beacon from others with the same UUID. These three values are periodically emitted by the beacon.

For example, the UUID 5556B57B-E4E9-355A-97AA-69407F3025556A45DD1A may refer to a particular retailer such as Bloomingdale’s, the Major ID 100 may refer to a particular Bloomingdale’s location (e.g., Atlanta), and the Minor ID 22 may refer to a particular department within that location (e.g. shoes).

UUID: 5556B57B-E4E9-355A-97AA-69407F3025556A45DD1A
Major ID: 100
Minor ID: 22

Using these values, a smartphone within the proximity of the above beacon will help an application determine that it’s located in the shoe department of the Atlanta Lenox Mall location of Bloomingdale’s.  The app can then take further action such as welcoming the customer or providing a coupon.

How long do the beacon’s batteries last?

Beacons use low-energy Bluetooth, but they are in fact small computers and their batteries don’t last forever. There are 2 main factors that determine battery life: broadcasting power and advertising interval.

Broadcasting power refers to the strength of a beacon’s signal, which in turn determines how far the beacon’s signal can reach. Many beacons have adjustable ranges which can vary from 3-5 feet to 50 feet to 200 feet. More range = more power = shorter battery life.

Advertising interval simply means how often the beacon ‘advertises’ itself to the world.    Many beacons have adjustable intervals ranging anywhere from 50ms (20 times per second) to 2000ms (2 seconds).   Shorter intervals = more power = shorter battery life.

Taken together these 2 factors influence battery life.   For example, depending on the application, the batteries in the Estimote brand beacons can last anywhere from 25 days (long range / short intervals) to 3 years (short range / long intervals).

Will receiving beacon signals drain the batteries of my smartphone?

You may be familiar with current Bluetooth technology being a drain on smartphone batteries, so much so that many users turn off Bluetooth on their devices, only to turn it on when needed.  However, beacons use a newer form of Bluetooth called Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) which has less of an impact on batteries.

While it’s true that BLE’s energy requirements are relatively minor, there are a few things to consider.  First, the smartphone must periodically scan the environment for beacons.   iOS devices do this scan once per second.  This scan does use a small amount of energy.

Second, while the beacon-enabled apps on smartphone typically only receive beacon signals, there are some applications that may require 2-way communication between the beacon and smartphone.  This communication requires an extra bit of energy to perform.

Third, as the use of beacon technology increases, the increasing number of beacons in the environment will require the smartphone to perform some amount of work for each one of them.   While not directly related to the reception of the Bluetooth signal, each beacon-enabled smartphone app will respond to the signal in its unique way (such as updating the screen with new information or by reaching out to the internet for additional data).  These additional processes require energy as well.

However, these energy requirements are minor compared to the energy requirements required for GPS, Wi-Fi, and conventional Bluetooth.  As a result, users are less likely to turn off BLE as an energy hog.

Do beacons only work with iOS devices?

No. Beacons work with any device that can detect low-energy Bluetooth signals. This includes iOS devices like iPhones and iPads running iOS 7 or later, Android devices running 4.3 (Jelly Bean) or later, OS X devices like MacBook Air / MacBook Pro / Mac Mini, and many more devices. See this list for additional compatible hardware.

Apple has recently been pushing hard on the concept of iBeacon, often misleading people into thinking that beacons are an Apple-only technology.

What is the difference between Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) and Bluetooth Smart?

Nothing. Bluetooth Smart is the marketing name for Bluetooth low-energy (BLE).

What is the difference between Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready?

Bluetooth Smart is not backward-compatible with the previous ‘Classic’ Bluetooth protocol.  However, most devices support both Smart and Classic, and these are termed as Bluetooth Smart Ready devices.