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The Basics

What is Bluetooth Beacon Technology and How is it Used?

March 15, 2023
What is Bluetooth Beacon Technology and How is it Used?
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This page is an entry in our extensive guide to Bluetooth Beacons.

What is Bluetooth Beacon Technology and How is it Used?

Bluetooth beacon technology is responsible for innovative monitoring and tracking techniques with which companies are addressing indoor location, navigation and proximity issues. Bluetooth beacons are used across a wide range of industries and in particular in retail for targeted marketing and enhancing the customer experience. We are going to look at the technologies behind Bluetooth beacons, their development, and how they are being used by businesses today.

What Makes Bluetooth Beacons Work?

Bluetooth beacons rely on Bluetooth technology that has become a ubiquitous technology that covers a wide range of use cases from stream audio, connecting keyboards and medical devices. Beacons only use a small part of the Bluetooth protocol, the piece responsible for device discovery. This is the part that allows your laptop to become aware of a printer nearby or the availability of headphones for audio streaming. Bluetooth is a wireless communication protocol that uses short-link radio technology similar to WiFi. It operates via radio waves over the unlicensed but regulated 2.4 to 2.485 GHz band to establish communication between two or more devices. Some parts of the radio spectrum are licensed by entities such as wireless carriers. Only they can use the wireless bands that they have paid for. The part of the spectrum Bluetooth uses is available free of charge. The disadvantage of this is that because anyone can use it there is no one responsible for metering the access and so it can become congested,

Bluetooth was developed in the late 1990s by researchers from Ericsson, IBM, Toshiba, Intel and Nokia. The technology was standardized in 1996 when tech-industry leaders decided to form the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) which was officially established in 1998. The Bluetooth SIG, with membership now numbering in the tens of thousands, is responsible for maintaining the specifications and developing updates and features to newer versions of the technology.

Since its inception, multiple versions of Bluetooth have been developed and released. Bluetooth 4.0, released in 2010, introduced Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to address concerns regarding power consumption in a Bluetooth device. Bluetooth Low Energy is used extensively to power Bluetooth beacons, extending their battery life, reducing cost and size, and paving the way for new applications of beacon technology.

Both Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy share the 2.4GHz ISM Band and employ Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) for channel usage. The related technologies also are restricted to a transmission power of ≤ 100 mW (+20 dBm).

Bluetooth beacons typically transmit a small amount of data in the form of a unique identifier to in-range Bluetooth enabled devices. Beacon protocols such as Apple’s iBeacon can wake up sleeping or dormant applications on a smartphone. The device’s receiving application translates the identifier into meaningful information. This triggers the app to begin listening to the beacon for additional data or instructions. Navigation and proximity use cases using Apple’s popular iBeacon protocol are made possible by the ability of developers to specify three ranges that provide different distance thresholds that will make calls that wake up applications on a mobile device based on its distance from the beacon.

  • Far - This signal is received as soon as a mobile device comes in range of a beacon. It may be used to indicate a nearby structure is equipped with a Bluetooth beacon to direct an individual towards it.

  • Near - A signal in the near range indicates the device is closer to the beacon, perhaps within the same room. More detailed navigation or location information can be provided to the mobile device and its user.

  • Immediate - This signal is reserved for when the mobile device is very close to or in direct physical contact with a beacon. Specific information about the item, product, or service associated with the beacon is provided to the application on the mobile device.

The Development of Bluetooth Beacon Technology

Bluetooth beacons are small wireless devices that communicate via Bluetooth Low Energy technology. While Bluetooth beacons predated Apple’s adoption of the technology, the market for Bluetooth beacons was turbo charged when Apple introduced the iBeacon standard in 2013. Other companies followed suit, with Google releasing Eddystone in 2016 to compete with iBeacons and their use of location-based technologies.

Bluetooth beacons provide one-way communication that sends information from the beacon to receiving Bluetooth Low Energy devices that are within range. They typically transmit an identifier which is converted into actionable information by an associated application running on a mobile or other Bluetooth-enabled device. Bluetooth Low Energy beacons use a less power hungry protocol than the previous devices, resulting in reduced power consumption and extended battery life.

The Many Business Uses of Bluetooth Beacon Technology

Bluetooth Low Energy devices are being used to power Internet of Things (IoT) applications in business and industry. They are also being used in the business-to-customer (B2C) space to design enhanced customer experiences in retail stores. The following are some of the ways Bluetooth Low Energy beacon technology is being used today.

  • Indoor location - Bluetooth beacons can be used to provide indoor location information to compatible apps on mobile devices. Users in large facilities can immediately determine their location with a high degree of accuracy via a system of installed beacons. This information can enhance the customer experience in settings such as museums where patrons can be provided with detailed information on exhibits.

  • Indoor navigation - Bluetooth beacons can facilitate indoor navigation for humans and autonomous devices. This functionality can be used to guide individuals through unfamiliar settings or to enable the smooth operation of automated assembly lines.

  • Proximity marketing - Retailers can take advantage of Bluetooth beacons to send push notifications to customers in close proximity to specific locations within an establishment. The notifications can result in discounts or special offers for customers with compatible Bluetooth-enabled apps on their smart devices.

Recent innovations in the application of Bluetooth technologies can be seen in products like Wiliot’s IoT Pixels. These postage-stamp-sized Bluetooth stickers beacons and tags can be attached to, or embedded into, virtually anything from shipping pallets to garments destined for sale in retail stores. They are distributed in reels that facilitate their use and offer an inexpensive and flexible method of establishing communication between the asset to which the Wiliot Pixel has been attached beacon and the dedicated apps on a Bluetooth Low Energy enabled mobile device that can decrypt the encrypted Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmission and compute/take action based upon the data contained therein.

An outstanding feature of Wiliot’s IoT Pixels is that they are available as battery-powered tags or in a battery-free model that harnesses energy from ambient radio waves or in a printed battery-powered tag/sticker format. Both types of devices have extended lifetimes suitable for a wide range of applications. The battery-powered devices last for four years with its thin credit-card sized printed battery, and the battery-free energy-harvesting Pixels models having an effectively limitless lifetime.

Bluetooth beacon technology continues to find new uses and innovations like IoT Pixels. As the influence of the Internet of Things continues to expand, businesses and consumers stand to benefit from the evolution and implementation of Bluetooth beacon technology.