Beacons close in on proximity-based applications

Wireless beacons are being seen as a way to enable proximity-based application but indications are that the technology is already being overhauled by smarter technology. George Malim assesses what’s on offer

Beacons close in on proximity-based applications

Organisations are exploring how they can deploy location-based application technologies to aid in activities such as proximity marketing. There is now a wide range of technology options available including geo-fencing, Wi-Fi, near field communications (NFC) and beacons or iBeacons.

The iBeacon designation refers to Apple’s indoor positioning system and ecosystem that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, sometimes called Bluetooth Smart.

Ian Malone, managing director of proximity marketing specialist Airspace explains the options. ‘Geo-fencing technology is practically free but doesn’t work indoors and even outside can be 5-10m or more out,’ he says. ‘However, it’s great for creating large proximity zones, say for 5km around a sports venue.

‘Wi-Fi also works indoors, can be reasonably accurate and is better than BLE beacons at handling obstructions as the signal is more powerful,’ he adds. ‘NFC is expensive to install and it doesn’t work on as many devices as Bluetooth does.’

Cost effective
In contrast, Malone points out that beacons are cost-effective at only £15-20 per unit, easy to install and more accurate when paired with a smartphone. However, beacons are only very simple devices.

‘Beacons are Bluetooth-enabled devices that transmit an identity. They’re a bit like the chip in your dog or cat but in a retail or public place,’ explains Gavin Ray, senior vice president of products and marketing at small cell specialist ip.access, which has developed its own presenceCell location-based technology.

‘That identity can activate an application and create a service and in the case of an iBeacon, Apple is running a service to facilitate an interaction it can charge for because the application is activated through its App Store. Android and Google could do something similar.’

For Dipak Raval, a commercial director at product design and development firm Cambridge Consultants, the main downside of this technology is that the positioning of the user is done by looking at relative signal strengths of each beacon relative to the user.

‘This can be distorted when the smartphone is close to the user and the impact of the human body on these signals at 2.4Ghz creates hugely variable signal strengths, which are dependent upon whether the user is in direct line of radio frequency sight between the phone and the beacon or if the body is between the phone and the beacon,’ he says.

Relative maturity
Nevertheless, beacon technology is relatively mature and its portability and accuracy is very appealing, says David Ward, a partner at Glue Reply. ‘Some of these technologies can also be used over any broadcast channel such as TV advertising, further opening up opportunities to communicate with customers.’

The growing maturity of the beacons market is seeing applications arise in healthcare, large venues, transport and logistics in addition to retail stores. ‘The reason beacons have risen in popularity is that Apple backed the iBeacon protocol as a way of creating services,’ says Björn Sjölund, the chief technology officer of Walkbase.

‘It essentially enables the phone to discover the content. A beacon device is also an extremely simple way of determining the context.’

Ward agrees that much of the early focus is on marketing applications.
‘We tend to think of marketing opportunities but they are also very useful for information purposes,’ he adds. ‘The Reply Group has implemented beacons in museums to provide additional interactive content when visitors are in front of a specific art installation.

‘We have also used them to manage crowd control in airports and tourist attractions. This type of context-aware content-delivery capability can be used in any industry if the customer experience is considered carefully.’

More than marketing
Jess Stephens, the chief marketing officer at SmartFocus, agrees. ‘We’re beyond pilots now and the technology is applicable anywhere that companies want to own the digital airspace,’ she says. ‘A key market is around how you can use proximity to generate sales but there are other applications around operational functions such as traffic movement or in museums. We’ve deployed beacons on a cruise liner that allow passengers to receive their itinerary for the day, for example.’

Mike Crooks, MiBeacons development director at Mubaloo, sees applications for enterprises. ‘A lot of the conversations we’ve had about beacons are with companies that have 3-4,000 employees,’ he says. ‘They’re looking at beacons as a way to create smarter offices. Anything that can save time or gain efficiency is interesting.

‘We’ve seen applications such as communicating health and safety information in multiple languages on building sites, for example,’ Crooks adds. ‘That aids compliance because you know people have seen it in a language that makes sense to them.’

Privacy and security
However, privacy and security concerns do exist surrounding the deployment and utilisation of beacons. ‘Beacons are a very security-minded and privacy-oriented technology,’ adds Sjölund.

‘It’s up to the user if they want to use it. However, if a large retail chain rolls out ibeacons as they are there could be issues, such as abuse of the ibeacon protocol by users to gather large numbers of loyalty points, for example.’

Stephens adds, though, rivals may hijack competitors’ beacons ‘by picking up their major and minor identities’.

Although beacon technology is well understood, use cases and applications are far from well-established. ‘It is still in a very, very early stage,’ confirms Juha Mattsson, the chief marketing officer of Walkbase.

‘Most big retailers are piloting something but it’s slow because it transforms all marketing in the physical retail world into real time and retailers don’t have the internal processes in place to match that.’

Others see a relatively short lifespan for beacons. ‘In five years the natural technology cycle will have brought in an even better technology,’ says Malone.

Beyond beacons
Stephens at SmartFocus is already moving on. The company has developed a virtualised beaconing technology that picks up variations in magnetic waves and other metrics that can be picked up by in-phone sensors. ‘You don’t actually need beacons at all. All you need is a floorplan that maps magnetic fields and, from that, you’d know the location.’

Ray at ip.access sees the concept of proximity and contextual marketing coming together in a series of steps from basic Bluetooth-based beacons, through Wi-Fi and on to systems that utilise mobile operator information.
‘The final piece, when it comes to targeting and context, is knowing who the person is,’ he adds.

‘With Wi-Fi, you don’t really know who the person is, so we’ve created our presenceCell proposition, which ties the precise location to the identity of the user. This is a highly managed network technology that can see all the phones and knows who the users are.

‘A presenceCell is the size of a beer mat, one inch thick and sticks on a wall. It is a very, very small extension of the mobile network that recognises when people are in a presence zone down to 2-5 metres.’

Box: Customised push notifications and onsite navigation
In November 2014, Wi-Fi specialist Aruba Networks launched its Aruba Mobile Engagement – an interactive and personalised mobile solution based on Wi-Fi and location services. It’s powered by Aruba Beacons using Aruba Meridian-powered apps or a mobile browser via Aruba ClearPass Guest Advertising.

End users have to ‘opt-in’ by downloading a service provider’s specific app but, once they have, organisations can then deliver customised push notifications and precise onsite navigation to users’ mobile devices based on their opted-in, personal profile settings and position inside a venue.

To eliminate privacy concerns, Aruba Mobile Engagement does not retain customer information and requires multiple layers of acknowledgement from the user before activation.

For example, a guest at a hotel can walk into the hotel lobby where the Aruba Beacon will recognise him via the hotel app he has downloaded before. It knows the number of the room he has booked and sends a push notification to send him directly to it.

The system also triggers a notification to hotel staff that the guest has arrived and the concierge can welcome him by name. As he gets to within 2m of his door, a push notification on his smartphone prompts him to send a return notification to unlock the door.


  1. Devika
    Devika Girish 25th May 2015

    Great read James And I totally agree with what you said While beacons are popularly known for their proximity marketing capabilities there is more th...

Leave a Comment