What Are Beacons and What Are They Used For? A Complete Guide On Bluetooth Beacons | Symmetry Blog

Jan 8, 2019

Written by Augustine Nguyen
Applications Engineer at Symmetry Electronics


The emerging technologies surrounding Bluetooth Low Energy have helped a large number of industries grow, but one area of business that has been slow to adopt new wireless technologies has been the retail industry. Online stores have been quick to ride the IoT wave, but most retail stores are still constrained to traditional means of interacting with their customers - through posters, commercials, and salespeople. All the while, retail customers are declining nationally as more shoppers go online for all their purchased goods. However, there is a new technology emerging that could reinvigorate the retail space, using Bluetooth Low Energy. What we're talking about is the Bluetooth proximity beacon.

The power of the Bluetooth beacon comes from giving store marketers the ability to target in-store customers the same way online stores pass out targeted ads. These beacons provide customers with a tailored experience, one that molds around their wants and needs.


Keep reading for the complete overview on what beacons are, and how engineers and marketers can use them.


What are Beacons?

A beacon is a small hardware transmitter that transmits signals to nearby receivers like a smartphone or any other Bluetooth enabled device. To understand beacons, you first must understand the technology behind it: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Formally marketed as Bluetooth Smart, all Bluetooth technology after version 4.0 can be identified as Bluetooth Low Energy, and this newer generation of Bluetooth has generated a renaissance in IoT Bluetooth applications. The difference between BLE and "Classic Bluetooth" (Bluetooth 3.0 and before) lies in its power consumption. While Classic Bluetooth requires a large draw of power to operate, BLE provides similar functionality but at a considerably reduced power consumption. A small coin-battery operated IoT Bluetooth device would not be able to run Classic Bluetooth for very long, but by using BLE, the same battery-operated device would be able to run for long periods of time, often for months or even years (although this depends on the application). It is the innovative Bluetooth Low Energy that helped bring beacon technology into reality. To learn more about BLE, read our article on “Bluetooth 1.0 vs 2.0 vs 3.0 vs 4.0 vs 5.0 - How They Compare”


How do Beacons work?

Bluetooth beacons use BLE proximity sensing to transmit a unique identifier to a compatible receiver like a smartphone app or operating system. This helps the app determine the location of the device and track the customer, providing companies with data to tailor their marketing messaging. A second function that beacons can perform is by acting as a trigger, which causes the receiving device to activate a location-based action like a push notification or a check-in on social media. Although most companies should limit the invasiveness of beacon apps, smaller actions like a short notification on a promotion for a nearby item can really help drive in-store customer traffic.

Beacons rely on a Bluetooth functionality that senses the proximity of other devices, detecting how near they are. Proximity sensing is not new to BLE - Classic Bluetooth also had this ability - but because proximity sensing requires continuous power operation, the large power consumption from Bluetooth Classic made this impractical to implement for IoT, until the release of BLE. The data rate required for BLE proximity sensing is low (i.e. 125kbps, 500kbps) which allows the beacon to advertise their data packets over longer ranges but at no expense of power consumption. This lower power and bandwidth specifications of BLE are what made beacons feasible for many applications.

Here is how a beacon works:

  • A beacon is placed in a strategic location somewhere in the facility.
    • The amount of data during each transmission is small, and the signal strength and frequency of transmissions can be adjusted.
  • A mobile application, like a smartphone, listens to these signals. Once a listening device comes within range of a beacon, the beacon will transmit the signal to the device.
  • Based on the proximity of the device to the beacon, a signal from the beacon is received by the device that is constantly scanning for BLE packets.
  • Using an app on the device, the signal is translated into an action.
  • When a beacon signal is received, the application can perform a corresponding action.
    • This could be a message displayed on-screen or a special offer that is loaded onto the app.

Developers are providing wide support for beacons in a variety of situations. iBeacon is Apple’s development platform for beacons used with iPhones. Likewise, Eddystone is a BLE beacon profile developed by Google for Android implementation.


What kinds of applications can we make with beacons?

The first application to come to mind with Bluetooth beacons is retail.

Beacons have the potential to radically alter the experience of shopping inside the store. Like a lighthouse guiding travelers to their destination, beacons can help customers find their way to the right product.

One of the exciting features of beacons is the ability to assign different actions over varying distances. Beacons can send out different signals to tailor the message to where the receiver is located.

A window-shopper could receive an enticing message that draws them into the store. Inside, patrons could receive different coupons and promotions as they walk past various sections with beacons advertising their data packets.

One such example of a retail store taking advantage of beacon technology is by providing incentives for shoppers to drop by the store. A shopper walking past the front entrance may not be planning to enter the store, but beacons can detect when someone is near the entrance. Sending a promotional message to the shopper's device can convince them to give the store a try, increasing store traffic.

Another example of beacon technology in the retail space is by improving in-store engagement. Beacons set up near display items can broadcast information about those items, providing customers with the tools to make well-informed shopping decisions and improve satisfaction.


It’s more than just retail

A new generation of asset tracking is one of the big ways that the internet of things is changing the industrial sector. The introduction of beacons to the industrial IoT provides powerful Real Time Location Service (RTLS) tracking.

Inventory logistics demand precise organization. By using beacons for accurate indoor positioning and tracking, logistics teams save time and money while decreasing errors. The power of location intelligence provides the location of company assets to the team quick and easy, all while on the go. A powerful all-in-one solution.

Beacons can also be used for event engagement, smart city accessibility, interactive education in the classroom, enhanced hospitality service, and healthcare resource management. The opportunities with beacons are only limited by the imagination.


For more information on Beacons and how to integrate beacon technology into your application, contact one of our Applications Engineers for free design and technical help with your latest designs. Contact us today!



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Why partner with Symmetry Electronics? Symmetry's technical staff is specially trained by our suppliers to provide a comprehensive level of technical support. Our in-house Applications Engineers provide free design services to help customers early in the design cycle, providing solutions to save them time, money and frustration. Contact Symmetry for more information.


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