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Beacons — What Are They & How Do They Work?

A Beacon is a small gadget that consistently sends out radio signals to any nearby tablets and/or smartphones, containing a small amount of data using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).  The signal strength and time between each signal can be  set up to give a desired coverage.  Mobile apps can listen for the signals being broadcast and, wen they hear a relevant signal, can trigger an action on your phone.  Note that Beacons only work or communicate in one direction (they broadcast data but cannot read things from off your phone).

For the majority of current Beacons, the data that they broadcast is hard coded and doesn’t change frequently (which means when configuring the Beacon it’s set only once).  Beacons rely on the device which is listening to do something intelligent with the data – this is likely to start changing in the future.

The Beacons themselves are typically stuck to walls, ceilings or counter space or hidden in other objects.  They may have up to 110ft range with no obstructions, but this can drop somewhat through walls made with metal or brick (though thin/stud walls have a much smaller effect).  In addition to the potential range, most also operate with three ranges of distance: far, near and immediate – and the device can do something different at each range.

  • Far – Designed so that your device can do something when you can just about hear a beacon (i.e. walking past a store)
  • Near – Designed so your device can do something once you are in the same room as a beacon (i.e. walking into a store)
  • Immediate – Designed so your device can do something once you are virtually touching a beacon (i.e. checkout in a store)

The signals also allows apps to recognize whether you are getting closer or further away, hence offer you a welcome or goodbye message as you shop, or even understand which parts of the shop you interacted with.  Remember that this processing would have to be done by the app as a beacon only transmits data and cannot receive a signal from your phone – this information could however be transmitted back with a data or Wi-Fi connection.

We’re just seeing the beginning of a world where all your online behavior will blend in with your offline activities and many offline objects.  Bus stops, vending machines, cars, shopping malls, museums, car parks, department stores and so much more will all become smarter and we will be able to interact with them.

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