What Are Bluetooth Beacons? Everything You Should Know

Last Updated: December 31, 2016

Bluetooth Beacons are by no means a new technology, however, they have become much more affordable in recent years, and can be easily purchased from Amazon. Their uses are only recently being recognised, and being implemented widely by businesses. So what exactly are these Bluetooth Beacons? What do iBeacon, and Eddystone mean? Well, if you’re wondering about this, we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about Bluetooth Beacons, iBeacon, Eddystone, and everything else.

Bluetooth Beacons

Bluetooth beacons are essentially just that – a “beacon” that uses Bluetooth. Bluetooth beacons are basically devices, that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) standard, to intermittently emit a signal that usually comprises of a UUID, Minor, and Major. That’s actually all that the beacons do.

bluetooth-beacon

When a mobile device (Android, or iOS) comes within range of a Bluetooth beacon, it recognises the signal being sent out from the beacon, and can perform context-aware tasks based on what it receives. The beacon itself does nothing other than broadcast the signal. It does not take any data from the mobile device, and against popular belief, it can not steal data from your cellphone. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry, I’ll explain this in detail, soon.

Bluetooth Beacons: iBeacon vs Eddystone

So, what exactly is the difference between “iBeacon” and “Eddystone”?

There is a common misconception, that Beacons, iBeacon, and Eddystone are three different things – they’re not. Here are some simple definitions of what these three terms mean:

  • Beacon or Bluetooth Beacon: A Beacon (or a Bluetooth Beacon) is a piece of hardware which intermittently transmits a Bluetooth signal that can be received by other devices (usually mobile phones)
  • iBeacon: iBeacon is a communication protocol for Bluetooth Beacons to follow. This protocol was designed by Apple, and released with iOS 7. iBeacon does not refer to another hardware. It is simply a set of rules that a Bluetooth Beacon may follow.
  • Eddystone: Eddystone is another protocol for Bluetooth Beacons. This one, was designed by Google. Much like iBeacon, “Eddystone” does not refer to a piece of hardware; it is simply a set of rules that a Bluetooth Beacon may follow.

The point of the definitions above, is that a Bluetooth Beacon can follow any of the protocols – iBeacon, or Eddystone. This means, that you can get a Bluetooth Beacon that follows the iBeacon protocol; and you can get a Bluetooth Beacon that follows the Eddystone protocol. So, if you’re looking to buy a Bluetooth Beacon, you should think about which protocol is most suited to you.

NoteA Bluetooth Beacon using the iBeacon protocol can be detected by both iOS, and Android devices. Similarly, a Bluetooth Beacon using the Eddystone protocol can be detected by both iOS, and Android devices. The compatibility is the same, only the format of the transmitted signal is different.

iBeacon or Eddystone? Which is Better?

The next question that you would probably have, is which one is the better protocol here. Well, there is no clear answer to that, but if you have to choose among the two, there are a number of factors that you can weigh, and decide on which protocol will work best for you. So, here’s a breakdown of some major factors with respect to the iBeacon, and Eddystone protocols for Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons, followed by a simple explanation of the most important ones.

<iBeacon vs Eddystone comparison table>

The most important distinction between iBeacon, and Eddystone, is the way they transmit packets.

  • iBeacon transmits a UUID, a Major, and a Minor (12 bytes, 2 bytes, and 2 bytes, respectively)
  • Eddystone can transmit three different kinds of packets: URLs, EID, or TLM.

Eddystone’s capability to transmit URLs directly, gives it an edge over iBeacon, because when a mobile device comes in proximity of a Bluetooth Beacon using Eddystone URLs, it will automatically be able to understand that a nearby object is broadcasting a URL, and can notify the user that they can open the URL on Google Chrome. However, iBeacon can’t transmit URLs; instead, it transfers a UUID, which is always tied to a developer’s server. This means that the developer needs to develop a mobile app that can detect the Bluetooth Beacon, and take appropriate action.

NoteFor an iOS device to recognise an Eddystone beacon, it should have Chrome installed, and the Chrome widget should be in the Today View of the device.

As you probably would have guessed, there is no “best” option, out of the two. Both these protocols have their own pros, and cons. However, Eddystone is forecasted to be the dominant BLE Beacon technology by 2020.

Use Cases for Bluetooth Beacons

It’s pretty easy to set up a Beacon with Eddystone URL, and just to test it out, we set it up to broadcast the Google homepage, and it works really well.

bluetooth-beacons-ios-android-eddystone

NoteEddystone URLs only work with webpages using HTTPS.

However, Bluetooth Beacons have a lot of great real-life use cases where they can make a tremendous impact:

  • We can use Bluetooth Beacons inside a supermarket, so that they tell the user’s device what aisle they’re in, and if anything on their shopping list is available in the aisle, it can alert them about it.
  • Amazon Go, the new fully automated store from Amazon, is also reportedly using Bluetooth Beacons to work.
  • In institutions like museums, or zoos, beacons could be placed inside exhibits. When a user comes in their range, the beacon could have their phone display information about the exhibit, play audio guides, and do a lot more.
  • Beacons can also be used as trackers, so that when the user’s device goes out of range of a beacon, it will automatically alert them about it.

SEE ALSO: What is an NFC Tag and How Does it Work

Get Ready to See BLE Beacons Everywhere

Bluetooth Beacons can be used in a plethora of ways, and we’re only limited by what we can design them to do. The possibilities are great, and already, a lot of businesses have been using Bluetooth Beacons to increase user gain, and multiply profits across the board. Beacons have already started to get affordable, and you can get great ones from Amazon.com. One important thing to know about beacons, is that they just transmit the signal packet containing a UUID, or a URL; all the processing is done on the user’s device. The beacon does not receive any data from a mobile device within its range, so it can’t really steal any of your data.

As always, we would like to know your thoughts on Bluetooth Beacons, and their various uses. Also, feel free to share your thoughts on iBeacon, Eddystone, and other beacon formats, in the comments section below.

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