One of our staff members, Attila Tóth, is currently working on multiple projects for INNObyte Informatikai Zrt. He’s a specialist in Bluetooth Low Energy beacon technology and his thesis dealt with the same topic, which also happens to be an area that INNObyte plans to focus on in the near future. Why is this field gaining in importance, and what opportunities does it create for clients? Attila addresses these questions in the post below.

Apple unveiled its Bluetooth Low Energy beacon technology called iBeacon in 2013 at the WWDC developers’ conference. A beacon is a tiny electronic device that broadcasts packets of information at a short range which can be picked up by nearby mobile devices and the apps they run. It allows the physical world around us to be transformed into something even more digital. They require three things to work:

  1. A piece of hardware which broadcasts Bluetooth data packets.
  2. Another piece of hardware which receives and processes signals.
  3. An application which supplies relevant information to the user based on the signal received.

Google followed suit two years later, announcing its own BLE beacon profile, Eddystone. Nowadays, multiple beacon technologies of different developers are available for use, each with their own features and formats, and most of them simultaneously support both Apple’s and Google’s beacon profiles.

How beacons can be used

On their own, these devices aren’t too useful and require the right application and ecosystem to allow us to fully leverage their features. Most of the time, the signal broadcast by a beacon is just a URL or a unique identifier which is used by the app to display information that is relevant to users. High-end transmitters are capable of broadcasting data from built-in sensors as well, meaning they can also be used for telemetry purposes.

Use cases of the technology include, amongst others, precise indoor navigation (in places where no GPS signal is available) or indoor tracking of the movement of persons or items. For example, the proprietary app of London Gatwick Airport has included a navigation feature at both of its terminals since 2017, and with the right device, augmented reality is also available.

Retail apps can display personalised ads to users depending on the beacons nearby. For instance, transmitters installed in Carrefour stores in Romania and Tunisia can be used to determine the path followed by customers who have Carrefour’s app installed, which allowed Carrefour to optimise the layout of its stores and to provide special offers in its app depending on the position of customers. This resulted in a 400% increase in the time spent in the app.

Beacons can also revolutionise how hospitals operate. The University Hospital of the Japanese city of Nagoya launched its smart hospital initiative in 2018. They fitted each patient and staff member with beacons, and information on their position and condition was collected using Bluetooth receivers installed in the hospital’s ceiling. This telemetry system notifies staff when a patient’s condition deteriorates, regardless of where they are located within the building. The smart devices used by doctors help speed up administration using the beacons of nearby patients by pre-loading available data and existing medical records.

Even on the web?

Initially, Google provided a platform for Eddystone URLs called Physical Web, back when beacons could only broadcast simple URLs. Android provided OS-level support, while the Chrome browser offered Apple integration, and notifications were displayed on users’ devices with the help of the website’s META data. At the end of 2018, Google eventually discontinued and phased out the system from Android and iOS systems due to an increasing number of unsolicited and irrelevant notifications. After that, only proprietary apps could display notifications using signals broadcast by beacons. A year later, starting from Chrome version 90, the Web Bluetooth Scanning API became available for experimentation based on the draft published by the Web Bluetooth Community Group, allowing web-based applications to utilise beacon technology directly. This feature is currently available for Android and Mac.

Even now, users still need plenty of preparation on their end to be able to leverage this technology as it’s far from complete and there’s still ongoing development. A poorly designed implementation could pose privacy risks for users and web developers could potentially see it as a vehicle for fraud. Given that the API does not carry out any write operations and only acts as a passive observer, the security risks it involves are minimal.

With the simultaneous implementation of multiple web-based technologies, websites will soon be able to provide an experience rivalling that of a native application, and so the features of the London Gatwick Airport app could even be accessible from a browser, with no installation required:

Although web technology offers more and more opportunities, there will always be operational limitations due to its ease of access. The majority of web APIs can only be used when the browser page is active and will never be suitable for implementing a device similar to Apple’s AirTag.