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iBeacons and do they matter?

Posted by: In: Blog 28 Nov 2013 Comments: 0

Apple’s iBeacons explained

Apple subtly introduced iBeacon as part of the mobile operating system iOS 7. When iOS7 was first shown in the summer at Apple’s developer conference the iBeacons feature was hardly mentioned.  Since then there is a growing understanding of what this new technology can do. A number of firms are producing iBeacon based solutions and products. We look at how this may impact communications and security. 

iBeacons essentially makes way for new range of apps and functions. With it, stores can pipe coupons to your phone, mapping apps can offer indoor navigation and more. Here’s the real clincher: iBeacon might just be that nail in the coffin for NFC.

So, what is iBeacons, and why does it matter? Read on to find out. 

1. What is iBeacons?

iBeacons is a brand name created by Apple for a specific technology. That technology allows mobile apps to recognise when an iPhone is near a small wireless sensor called a beacon (or iBeacons, as well). The beacon can transmit data to an iPhone – and visa versa – using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). iBeacon is a feature in iOS 7, thus Apple’s new iPhones will have iBeacon.

Let’s put this into a scenario: Say you own an iPhone 5S and you’re walking by a Starbucks that has a beacon. When you enter that beacon’s zone, the beacon will transmit special promotions, coupons, recommendations, etc, to your iPhone 5S via the Starbucks app. Beacons will also accept payments, so you can pay for a Starbucks coffee without having to bump or tap your phone against anything.

2. Who will make the beacons?

One company making headlines is Estimote. It manufactures BLE-enabled beacons that transmit data to any BLE-enabled device within range. PayPal is another company jumping on the iBeacon board. It recently announced Beacon (of course), which will allow people to make purchases via the PayPal app without having to interact directly with their phone. 

See PayPal’s promo videos below that shows how the beacons work.

3. What is Bluetooth Low Energy?

BLE is a technology meant for transferring data. It consumes minuscule amounts of energy and allows device batteries to last longer. However, BLE only supports low data rates; you can’t stream audio or send large files with it. BLE is ideal for transmitting smaller amounts of data though, such as fitness data to fitness trackers or payment data to beacons.

BLE is a feature in iOS 7 and Android 4.3.

4. Is iBeacons only good for shopping and coupons?

No. iBeacons also features micro-location geofencing. This is ideal for indoor mapping. For instance, GPS signals have trouble penetrating the steel and glass of buildings. This prevents many mapping apps from offering indoor navigation, but iBeacon’s micro-location feature hopes to solve the problem. 

An iPhone with iBeacon can connect to a nearby beacon to determine a GPS location. You could then navigate through an airport, casino or museum just by using a mapping app. And that’s only the beginning; the possibilities are endless. 

5. Why does iBeacons matter?

We know that Apple has yet to adopt NFC. It’s instead worked on improving the uses of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. When Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, introduced AirDrop in iOS 7 at WWDC 2013, he said: “There’s no need to wander around the room, bumping your phone.”

His words were a direct jab at NFC – as the technology requires a close proxmity to transfer data. Our guess is that NFC will never be a reality in iOS devices, and the technology itself might go belly up. You could say iBeacon is the future. Apple still hasn’t published all the details of iBeacons, but it’s probably capable of so much more.

iBeacon seems like it was created with Apple Retail in mind,  but the technology could be used in other indoor locations including non-Apple retail stores in the future. Major League Baseball has already  begun testing iBeacons, aiming to personalized stadium experiences to iPhone users. Apple is apparently also testing a program for developers to easily integrate iBeacons support in their apps.

We see security and identification as key opportunities for iBeacon in access control systems. As smart phones and especially iPhones continue to expand their presence, security systems need to reflect these changes. The potential for iBeacons to monitor rooms and building with people tracking is immense.

6. More Accurate Ticketing And Access Control

Apple owns some very important foundational patents that allow for radio frequency to be the basis of not only ticketing and event passes, they also have patents for door locking and access control.  The iBeacon technology will form a backbone for these use cases.   Your Major League Baseball ticket will already be in Passbook and certain iBeacon events will interact with the Passbook ticket and grand turnstile iBeacon users only access and ticketing verification.

Stay tuned for more news.

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