iBeacons break out of retail

Rob Borley
on 08 April 2014

The announcement of iBeacon technology in iOS 7 last year was expected to open the floodgates for new Bluetooth low energy (LE) implementations. Although there have been a few successful roll-outs, most notably at SXSW last month, certain limitations have prevented wider uptake. Most notable of these was an inability to leverage Bluetooth signals unless a dedicated app was running on the mobile device.

iOS 7.1 has managed to iron out many of these drawbacks, dramatically increasing the usefulness of the technology. The most interesting development is the ability to detect iBeacon signals without the associated app running on a handset.

Smartphone users often terminate apps that are not in use to save battery and processing resources but in doing so, iBeacon-enabled apps are not available for instant access. The ability to trigger ‘closed’ apps when a relevant iBeacon is detected ensures that device users never again miss the information they need. They are also much more likely to interact with iBeacons again in future, assuming the information supplied is of relevance.

Even more interestingly, tests performed by Beekn.net suggest that manually closing apps or rebooting the handset does not terminate iBeacon detection. The researchers also reported that iBeacon-enabled apps launched almost instantly, rather than with a seconds-long delay as originally observer under iOS 7.0.

Quicker access to Bluetooth-enabled apps with minimal intervention will make the user experience seamless when interacting with iBeacons.

Not just for sales coupons – testing iBeacon airport deployments

When asked for iBeacon use cases, most revolve around using in-store Bluetooth signals to communicate vouchers, discounts or special offers direct to customers’ smartphone handsets. As the technology gains acceptance however, more innovative deployments are starting to appear.

SITA Lab has recently announced the results of a trial using iBeacon technology in airports to help passengers obtain information or find their way around terminal buildings. SITA’s tests looked at the ways by which airport operators and airlines could share iBeacon hardware, and the problems they might face with multiple units disrupting each other’s signals.

With airlines already sharing resources such as check-in desks and departure gates, pooled Bluetooth beacons should not present any major problems. So long as travellers have the correct airport or airline apps installed, they will be able to access the information and resources they need, as they move through the terminal.

Indoor mapping with iBeacons

Indoor mapping has been suggested a potential use for iBeacon technology, allowing people to navigate inside building in a way that is not possible with traditional GPS. Again, much of the focus for such applications has been helping shoppers navigate large malls and department stores, but the SITA test reveals another potentially useful implementation.

The relatively low cost of Bluetooth beacon hardware lowers the barrier to entry for businesses of any size. However more than simply having Bluetooth beacons available, businesses will need to carefully consider the information they intend to disseminate. If iBeacons provide no added value to customers, they are unlikely to be used.

The improvements to iBeacons in iOS 7.1 show Apple’s continuing commitment to Bluetooth LE, It is now down to brands and developers to find effective implementations of the technology that add value to customers or increase employee efficiency.


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