Real Time Communications Featured Article

Build Context-Aware Apps with iBeacons

September 09, 2014

Everyone makes use of the location function on their smartphones or tablets. Essentially, we are talking about a GPS tracker that constantly marks your location. I’m sure that everyone has seen a person walking down the street with their eyes glued to the smartphone in front of their face instead of the street that they are walking on, that is because they are looking at their GPS map.

The location function on your mobile device can also act as a proximity monitor, which is often used by advertisers and marketers to make you aware of the fact that you are approaching a favorite store or restaurant. Some retailers can even send you a text with sales options and specials if you opt-in.

One problem, however, is that once you are inside a store, chances are that you will have trouble getting a strong cell signal. This is due to the fact that the metal, concrete and electronics in closed spaces tend to interfere with a tower’s signal. One solution to this is to install beacons.

Normally we define a beacon as an intentionally conspicuous device designed to attract attention to a specific location. In a store, restaurant or possibly a museum, beacons can take advantage of Wi-Fi and your mobile device’s GPS to give you information. In an experience such as this, context becomes extremely important.

iBeacon is Apple's implementation of Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technology. It was designed to create a different way of providing location-based information and services to iPhones and other iOS devices. iBeacon was first seen in iOS7, which means it works with iPhone 4S or later. The beacons themselves are small, inexpensive, battery operated Bluetooth transmitters. Apps installed on your iPhone or iPad listen for the signal transmitted by these beacons and respond accordingly when the phone comes into range.

An example would be if you pass a beacon in a shop, the retailer's app, if you have opted-in, could display a special offer alert for you. If you visit a museum, the museum's app would provide information about the closest display, using your distance from beacons placed near exhibits to work out your position. As such iBeacons could be a much better option for in-door mapping, which is something that GPS struggles with.

Unlike a Bluetooth device such as a headset or a wearable device like a smartwatch, iBeacons do not need to be paired with your smartphone. They pretty much have one function which is to disseminate the piece of information that they have been programmed with. It constantly broadcasts the message and when you are in range your device will receive it.

It appears that there are two different modes that iBeacons can use to interact with your apps. The iBeacon can monitor, or listen for when you enter and exit a particular region. The other method is to listen for updates on the user's distance from a particular beacon based on its signal strength. This is referred to as ranging. When you combine the two modes, you can create a contextually aware experience for users of an app.

The interesting thing is that an iBeacon does not have to be a standalone device. Pretty much any iOS 7 device with Bluetooth Smart support can become an iBeacon. Additionally, it does not specifically have to be a mobile device, a Mac running OS X Mavericks and up can also be turned into an iBeacon. Basically, this means that iBeacons can either be hardware or software.

The use of products such as iBeacons can turn apps into a proactive delivery system to enhance the user experience. Since iBeacons are easy to create and interact with there is a whole new world of possibilities for apps. Instead of calling up a map to maneuver around a museum, iBeacons can make you aware of certain art works that you want to see. Retail stores can guide you to the section where certain sales are that appeal to you.

As Greg Shackles said in Visual Studio Magazine, “Context is king!”

Edited by Alisen Downey

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