By Thomas Larnhed
Eddystone™ is one of the most interesting developments on the Internet of Things right now. What is Eddystone and what can you do with beacons? Read on to learn more about this new exciting Internet of Things technology that can fit in your pocket and be applied to virtually any place or object around you.
Beacons are cheap, simple and need very little energy
What people think of when talking about beacons is probably small stand-alone devices with a little battery and a big self-adhesive patch on the back. But a beacon chip can be made very tiny and be embedded anywhere, in a bicycle frame, on a shopping cart, by a coffee machine or in-seam in a duffel bag. Smartphones, iPads, laptops or USB sticks can also be programmed to act as Beacons.
A beacon is really just a little Bluetooth chip configured as a small radio that can transmit certain kinds of messages over short ranges (up to 100 metres). A basic beacon has limited capabilities and only uses around 10% of the Bluetooth specification. It only transmits, and never receives any data (apart from when you configure it as a technician). It is one-way and never knows by itself if anyone is listening to it.
Since the chip only sends data at intervals, it also consumes very little power. Stand-alone beacons often have batteries that can last anywhere from months to a couple of years. They are small, rather uncomplicated devices, cheap to manufacture and can be bought for less than $10.
Almost all smart phones, iPads, laptops and similar devices have built-in Bluetooth capabilities and can pick up signals from beacons.
So – a beacon is cheap, simple, needs very little energy, can be embedded anywhere and transmits messages to any mobile phone, pad or other device that wants to listen and is close enough.
Now, this opens up for a lot of exiting possibilities…
A real-world example
Imagine that you are shopping for a new TV. You are walking around in the TV department in your local store, browsing among the available 10-15 different models. After a while, you get a message on your mobile phone that says you can have a 10% discount on one of the models. What is striking is that this happens to be one of the models you like the most – perhaps even your favourite one. You also get more detailed information about this model and since you are a member in the loyalty program of the store you also get an even larger discount if you combine the TV with other products.
In this example a beacon has been placed by each TV model and an app has simply measured how much time the customer lingers around each model.
Retail is probably one of the application areas most frequently discussed and where most applications have been built so far. But there are many other use cases, and industries hooking up to beacons. A bus stop could send out transit times and time tables, a museum can give you information about the exhibit you are standing in front of, a restaurant can send the menu to people passing by, a vending machine can call for maintenance when it needs refilling etc.
Use cases can be found anywhere people are in need for relevant information based on their currently physical location. Airports, zoos, amusement parks, concert halls, sports stadiums, shopping malls, hospitals, warehouses… Everywhere where there are people, there is an opportunity for communicating and reaching out using beacons.
iBeacon – the Apple standard
iBeacon has been around for two years and is Apple´s standard for beacons. There are already several successful applications built, especially in the retail sector. Large installations have been deployed by for instance Macy’s in New York City and San Fransisco, and by Tesco in London.
The iBeacon format officially only supports iOS and is technically rather limited.
The only thing a Bluetooth chip configured as an iBeacon transmits is an ID that identifies it, along with some parameters to identify a particular beacon from a group. It essentially says something like:
“My identity is x and you are within my range”
The ID can be used by an app to push notifications to the user, call a server to get additional data, or basically anything you can envision when designing the application. The important thing is that you get the resources from a server, not from the actual beacon itself.
You can also check the signal strength of the beacon and determine the approximate distance to the beacon:
“My signal strength is xx”
The computed distance based on the signal strength typically fluctuates due to variations and disturbances in the radio signal, but it is possible to get an approximated range estimate, typically reported as one of “immediate”, “near”, and “far”.
Eddystone – beacons are getting smarter
Eddystone works both on Android and iOS, and since it is an open standard it can and will work on any Bluetooth Low Energy capable platform.
In contrast to iBeacon and other earlier variations on beacons, Eddystone has what is called multi-frame support which means it can send different types of information packets, not only an ID. It can transmit URLs, and it has frames that enhances privacy and security. There are also frames with information about the beacons themselves, such as remaining battery life and temperature, which will make it easier to maintain large beacon installations.
The capability of Eddystone beacons to broadcast URLs is groundbreaking. This might not sound like such a big deal, but it has in fact the potential to change the mobile app landscape as we know it, and actually bypass the need for a specialised app all together.
Imagine the TV shopping example above. In this example the customer needs to have an app installed on her phone. The beacon sends out the ID and the app translates it to something meaningful. But customers might not want to have apps for each store they visit. When beacons are sending out URLs it would be enough for the customer to have a browser running. The URL can then trigger a web-based app and you could do anything from there. With iBeacon this scenario is not possible, each app needs to have a list of beacon IDs it can listen for. With Eddystone, however, you can literally browse beacons by moving around. Eddystone enables the physical web.
Eddystone beacons can sense their environment
Since different types of data can be included in an Eddystone broadcast, this will be a very effective way to communicate all kinds of sensor data. We will see many types of beacons on the market that in turn include all kinds of sensors and broadcast sensor data.
Some manufacturers, like the Kraków based company Estimote, are already building in sensor capabilities in their beacon hardware and we have only seen the beginning of this. A beacon device could for instance have an accelerometer, a temperature sensor, a humidity sensor, a magnetometer, a barometric pressure sensor, a motion detection sensor, a light sensor, and the list goes on.
Beacon functionality combined with new BLE devices opens up for many very interesting and useful applications. Still very low-cost, very low-energy and rather easy to build.
But how do you take advantage of all this new potential for your business or pleasure? How would you best build the services and mobile applications?
Developing with Eddystone beacons
Google integrates beacon functionality in their own applications and services such as Google Maps, Google Now and Google Wallet, which Android users most likely already have installed on their phones. There is also experimental Eddystone integration in Google Chrome which can be set up to scan for Eddystone URLs from within the browser. The idea is that the user should not have to download specific apps for every application. Yet, you’re limited to what’s allowed from within the browser sandbox.
What if you wish to make custom business applications, either for consumers or for industrial use. Or if you wish to build your own Eddystone Browser and add more of the phone’s native functionality? Would it be possible to develop cost effective beacon solutions in-house?
Get started with Eddystone app development in just 5 minutes
Feel free to download and try out Evothings Studio. It is easy to get going. It just takes 5 minutes to started with an Eddystone app on your mobile phone. Just run the “Eddystone Scan” example app and get your hands on some Eddystone beacons and you’re up and running in no-time!