iOS 7 – Introducing iBeacons

Rob Borley
on 09 October 2013

For years tech pundits have been trying to predict when Apple would begin to include NFC (Near Field Communications) technology in their mobile devices. The Samsung Galaxy range of phones, and some of Nexus handsets have included NFC readers for some time now, but Apple has avoided the technology.

The reason became clear with the low-key launch of ‘iBeacons’ in iOS 7.

What is iBeacons technology?

The first thing to note is that iBeacons are a software extension to the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) standard, not an item of physical hardware. iBeacons facilitate communication between Bluetooth-powered access points and BLE-equipped smartphones and tablets. Because BLE is designed to be extremely power efficient, version 4.0 of the Bluetooth standard is much more battery-friendly than previous standards.

iBeacons is also a two-way communications protocol, allowing mobile devices to send data back to the beacon.

How does iBeacons work?

For a long time businesses have been investigating the potential for using NFC for permission-based “pull” marketing. Using electronic tags attached to surfaces or goods, information could be drawn wirelessly from the chip embedded in the tag. All of the major banks and credit card retailers have been investigating the use of NFC for payments, as seen in contactless cards.

The problem with NFC is that the data in them can only be accessed by passing a suitable reader, like a smartphone, within four centimetres of the tag. iBeacons technology on the other hand has a maximum range of 50 metres, making it much easier for people to get access to the information, and thereby increasing the likelihood that that they will engage.

A series of BLE access points can be installed to create a ‘geofence’, a virtual perimeter around a geographical location, such as a retail store. Any BLE-equipped devices passing through the geofence perimeter are detected automatically allowing for various interactions to take place, such as push messaging.

How could iBeacons be used?

The reason iBeacons is set to become so important is that they allow businesses to identify devices in relatively small geographical regions, such as in their high street stores. For larger showrooms, the iBeacons could be used to direct customers through different departments depending on which geofenced area they are currently in. iBeacons provide context to activities.

As with many mobile technologies, retailers have been quick to see the potential of iBeacons technology. The idea of pushing discount vouchers to shoppers’ phones as they approach a high street store is attractive, providing a way to publicise products and draw people in store.

iBeacons also opens new opportunities for indoor mapping and technology. GPS navigation relies on being able to “see” global positioning satellites, which is impossible indoors. An iBeacons access point can be equipped with hardcoded GPS coordinates for instance, allowing devices to map their position indoors in relation to it. This feature can then be put to use guiding shoppers around a large store, or tourists around a museum or gallery.

The two-way communication potential of iBeacons also raises the potential of using it as a contactless payment mechanism. Rather than ‘bumping’ phones or cards, payment details can be extracted securely from a smartphone, potentially without removing it from the shopper’s pocket.

Extending iBeacons

One of the most high profile iBeacons implementations has been completed by Major League Baseball in the USA. Taking their existing app, the MLB have a number of iBeacons-powered functions such as the inclusion of indoor navigation to help people get around each stadium on game day. Other Bluetooth access points recognise devices as they approach the ground, triggering the app to load and displaying the user’s eticket on screen ready for scanning at the gate. Other features include downloadable videos about the teams playing, and push discount vouchers for use at the food concession stands or merchandise stores inside the ground. There is also potential for loyalty schemes to be included in the app, updated automatically via iBeacons without any kind of manual intervention.

Speaking about the iBeacons implementation, the MLB’s iOS developer said, “The whole concept is to give the user an individualized experience that is always different. The next time a fan comes to Citi Field [one of the Baseball fields in New York], you might not get a prompt to visit the apple because it knows you’ve been there. Instead, it will highlight another area of the stadium.”

Other businesses can use iBeacons to perform similar tasks which, when backed by Big Data-type analysis can add value to the user’s experience and create opportunities for increasing revenue. Where a mobile device user browses products using a retailer’s app that information is captured as standard. The next time that shopper passes within range of a store, iBeacons can launch the app or push a discount voucher to their phone. Uniting back office data with context provides a more relevant experience for the shopper.

iBeacons is probably one of the most exciting developments in iOS7, which makes the low key launch all the more mystifying. The increased range, and therefore lower cost of iBeacons (compared to NFC smart tags) opens a number of valuable new channels for data collection and use to businesses. And as MLB has demonstrated, the functionality can be extended and adapted to meet virtually any business need.

If you want to have a chat about how iBeacons can impact your organisation then get in touch with us at Dootrix


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