Top 10 Questions on Beacons & iBeacon

Posted by in News & Tech

Having just spent a brilliant week at a technology trade show (ISTE 2015) demonstrating beacons to educators, app builders, software vendors, business owners, bloggers, etc… we thought we’d put together a summary of the most frequently asked questions at our booth. So here, in no particular order, are our Top 10 Questions about beacons & iBeacon:

1. How do beacons work and what is iBeacon?

Beacons are typically small battery powered devices that continually send out a Bluetooth signal which is picked up by an app on a nearby mobile device (tablet, phone, watch).  It only transmits three numbers : the UUID, the major number and the minor number. It does not transmit any content – it is up to the app receiving the beacon signal to infer context and show the relevant information or complete an appropriate action. There are many different beacon devices on the market, such as Estimote and iBeacon is a standard set by Apple for use with beacon devices. As well as using battery powered iBeacon devices, you can also use your  iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to transmit an iBeacon signal, turning it into a beacon that will transmit to mobile devices that are nearby.

Diagram of how beacon work

2. Do you need an app to detect the signal?

In most cases, yes, and you will need a specific app to detect and interpret the signal of a specific set of beacons. This stops your device from being bombarded with messages from all the beacons that are nearby.  By downloading an associated app you’re basically ‘opting-in’ to receive information triggered by the connected beacons e.g. in a museum, shop or sports venue. You can pick up push notifications from the beacon signal even when the associated app is closed on your mobile device in your pocket or bag. However beacons can be also used to trigger other things besides delivering content in a mobile app (see Question 10).

3. What’s the range of a beacon device?

This varies depending on two factors: the size of the aerial in the beacon and the amount of power provided to it. The aerial is fixed and part of the beacon design – the smallest devices typically have the smallest aerial. The amount of power is configured within the beacon – so even a large device can be set to only transmit a weak signal. The maximum range for smaller beacons are around 40m in clear line of sight and up to 180m for large ones.  You can also manually set the trigger strength of the beacon signal using a back-end system, which allows you to set the measured signal strength needed to trigger an action on the device. This means you can have content which is only available when in immediate proximity to a beacon, or conversely, different content shown when you’re far away from the beacon.  When you have beacons that are close together will need to have their strength reduced so that the app can more accurately deliver the right content.

4. How long do the batteries last?

This depends on a combination of beacon transmission power and transmission frequency. A very small battery on a beacon at full power transmitting 10 times a second could last 1 month whereas the same beacon transmitting at mid power could last a year. A larger beacon at mid power transmitting once per two seconds can last around 4 years. You can also get USB or mains power beacons and there is no difference to the operation of the beacon, only the duration of operation and the limiting factor of power source when placing the beacon (as you’d imagine). Normally, anything that moves would have a battery beacon (e.g. a person) and anything that’s fixed a powered one. A good plan is to test with battery powered beacons, and when placement becomes permanent, fix to USB or mains powered ones.

5. Do beacons need WiFi to work?

The beacon doesn’t need WiFi but the beacon app may do, depending on where the app content is held.  If the content is pulled in real-time from the cloud, then the mobile device will need WiFi or other mobile network connection to download the data.  However, you can cache content so that it can be delivered when offline. This can be done through a few options:

+ by bundling the content into an app, which is downloaded from the App Store
+ by manually caching the content when online, using the menu options in the app
+ by automatically caching the content overnight using background sync when online

Locly uses a combination of all these techniques so that if you have internet connection it will download the most up to date version of the content and if you’re in an area with limited connectivity it will use what it’s already pre-cached on the device. If you know that you will be using the app in a limited connectivity location, there are options available for you to pre-cache the content, or if you’re building your own version of the Locly app you can bundle the content into the initial download from the App Store.

6. Can you use the same beacons to trigger different content in the app?

Yes you can.  As the beacon simply sends out a signal you can control what is displayed using the apps back-end platform/operating system.  For example, in a museum you could have an audio tour, a historical tour and a treasure hunt all driven by the same physical beacon devices, which is an effective way to engage and satisfy the needs of different visitor profiles.

7. Which mobile devices can interact with beacons?

Beacons require a Bluetooth 4.0 receiver in your device. This includes; iPad 3 and above, all iPad Minis, iPhone 4s and above and  the majority of Android devices that support Android 4.4 and above.


8. What sort of content can you deliver in the app?

This is completely up to the app provider and depends on the capabilities of the device the app is installed on. Typically beacons are used to deliver two things: push notifications and content. Here  are just a few examples of the type of content you can deliver using the Locly platform:

+ Photo galleries, text, coupons, direct messages
+ Multimedia: video, audio, 3D models
+ Interactive widgets like a puzzles, games, before & after images.
+ Documents, presentations
+ Links to web pages and other apps that are on the device
+ Web forms, questionnaires and polls
+ Payment pages

Notifications are delivered to the app when it comes into range of the beacon.  The notification will be delivered even if the device screen is off and in standby, although iOS has some built in rules to preserve battery and prevent apps constantly delivering repeat content to users this way.

9. Can you control who sees what?

Yes, and there are a number of ways to do this which is powered by the receiving app. For example you can set content to be displayed at a particular time or date.  You can control different content to be displayed when someone is approaching a beacon, is standing by a beacon (dwell time) or walking away from a beacon, or if they’ve been near that beacon before e.g. a regular visitor.  With Locly, users can also login to the app so that they only see information that is relevant to them, which may be different to the person stood next to them when nearby the same beacon. This is particularly useful in schools, businesses, organisations and healthcare where data can be sensitive or group-specific. It is also an excellent feature for delivering personalised content e.g. VIP messages in-store.


10. Can beacon devices be used for anything else?

Yes there are many, many uses for these little devices.  For example, every beacon interaction is logged so that you can use it for data analysis e.g. footfall in a shop or visitor heat-map.  You can also get sensor beacons which can be used to monitor light, sound, movement, temperature.  Not only can this be used for data collection, but it can also be used to trigger actions e.g. switch the heating on when the temperature drops, dispense a coffee when an individual is near, or unlock a room for a particular person.  Beacons can also be used to trigger physical displays in shops, such as large monitors and is even being used to track sheep in the mountains of Wales!

Related Links:

This article on SlideShare
15 Ways to Use Beacons in 2015.
Video Tutorial: How to create your own iBeacon app in minutes
Start the Locly 30 day free trial (no beacons required!)