What is iBeacon and why you should care

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Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, took a jab at Android and NFC at WWDC this year when he said “There’s no need to wander around the room, bumping your phone.” He said this in reference to AirDrop and iBeacon, which was introduced with Apple’s iOS 7. But, before we get into iBeacon, let’s talk about NFC — Near Field Communication.

Many smartphones powered by Android, Windows Phone 8, and even BlackBerry come with NFC inside. NFC is awesome! With NFC I can change profiles on my phone for home, work, or car mode. I can automatically join a friend’s WiFi network. I can quickly and easily beam contacts, pictures, and videos to a friend. I can even use my Nexus 4 to buy my lunch. NFC is really pretty amazing — but if Apple and some others have anything to do with it, it’s pretty much dead. Their solution? iBeacon.

What is iBeacon? What makes it so special? And what can you do with it that you can’t do with NFC today? Let’s dig right in.

What is iBeacon?

iBeacon is an indoor positioning system which transmits a universally unique identifier (UUID) using Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. The devices can range from small, coin-cell powered gadgets, to USB sticks, and even software versions that can run on custom hardware, computers, or even your iPad.

Big Bang Theory, space

Yes, I did know that GPS doesn’t work in space.

On the surface, one might get the impression that these “beacons” are made simply to augment more traditional positioning technologies like GPS, GLOSNASS, and WiFi triangulation. To a certain extent that’s correct. iBeacons can be deployed in “urban canyons”, in shops, and even to mark specific locations inside a building. I’m sure all you geo-cachers out there are salivating over this right now.

In a nutshell, that’s iBeacon. Somewhat interesting, but nothing earth shattering. Well, not until you consider the possibilities.

Consider the possibilities

Let’s say I’m walking down the street and approaching my local coffee shoppe. My phone, sensing my location thanks to traditional GPS, knows that I’m getting close to the shoppe and pops up an alert to notify me. Since Halloween is approaching they’re having a special on spiced cider. Sure, that sounds good, it is a bit chilly today. I add one to my order. Oh, and that muffin I had yesterday, that was good. I think I’ll pick one of those up, too!

Big Bang Theory, coffee

I was busy checking my my iBeacon loyalty points and didn’t see the bus! Spiced cider?

My phone knows I’m about 15 minutes away and wisks my order to the shoppe where they add it to the queue so it will be ready when I get there. As I walk up to the shoppe, I come into proximity of the iBeacon near the door, it automatically checks me in, notifies the staff that I’m there to pick up my spiced cider and muffin, and automatically pays for my purchase. “Thanks, Samantha!” “See you tomorrow, Joe the Android Guy™!” In the background, my phone has automatically checked me in and credited my virtual punch-card with some “customer loyalty” points. I’ll be able to use those for a discount the next time I stop by.

On my way to work, I pass the tech museum. An iBeacon comes within range of my phone and I’m notified about the new exhibits opening later that evening. Sounds interesting! My schedule is open, so I grab a couple tickets for my wife and I.

Before I know it, I’m at work. As I walk in the building the security guard nods at me. His system has just told him who I am and displayed my picture on his monitor. The iBeacon in the lobby detected my presence and the software at the guard station took care of the rest. I was also “clocked-in” so “the Man” can keep tabs on me and make sure I’m putting in all my time.

Later in the day I head back to my car parked at a local garage. An iBeacon at the exit communicates with the phone in my pocket, which then sends a signal to the booth, which recognizes that I have a monthly pass and raises the arm so I can get on the road toward home. On the way I pass three toll booths. Luckily, since all are equipped with iBeacons, my phone sees them, and talks to the transit department computer, which green-lights my car as I drive through, deducting the tolls from my account automatically.

Later, at the tech museum with my wife, we walk right in. Upon detecting its iBeacon my phone pulled up the e-tickets that I’d purchased earlier, and after a quick scan of the bar code presented on my phone’s screen and we’re in. Apparently the museum is “old school” when it comes to ticket-taking. How quaint!

Big Bang Theory, comic book store

Okay, it’s not a museum, it’s a comic book store.

As we make our way through the museum, iBeacons are placed near each exhibit. My phone detects when I’m getting close and pulls up relevant information, giving us a personalized, interactive tour of each area.

Sounds like a great day, right? Rather than go into the technical details, I figured a walk-through of an iBeacon-enhanced day might serve to whet your pallet. That done, let’s talk specs, shall we?

Drawbacks

iBeacons are built on Bluetooth 4.0 LE, which is in a strikingly few smartphones these day. This will change, in time, but for now, NFC has a much more entrenched user base.

Many people will jump to the fact that iBeacons are “insecure” because they’re Bluetooth. Bluetooth LE has a theoretical maximum distance of around 50m (160-feet). That’s significantly more than NFC’s “inch-or-so”. While this means your device practically needs to touch an NFC-enabled payment device, iBeacons can work from across the room. But the technology doesn’t work the same way. All an iBeacon does is transmit a UUID to your phone. All the transacting happens on your phone and through whatever payment backend the merchant has established — in other words, your transaction goes over the Internet, not through a payment terminal.

Big Bang Theory, Lunar

When you said ‘beacon’ I thought you were referring to the interstellar variety.

Like UPC codes, there must be some kind of translation database to make those UUIDs mean something. This can either be done in an app that listens for certain iBeacons, or theoretically in a clearinghouse app that listens for any iBeacon, looks it up, then supplies a prompts with possible actions to take based on the iBeacon’s UUID.

What do you think?

Although iBeacons aren’t going to replace NFC and can’t do nearly as many things as NFC can today, it’s got huge potential, and because iBeacons are so inexpensive when compared to dedicated NFC payment terminals, they could take off faster than NFC has.

Big Bang Theory, Green Dress

This is the best ‘What do you think?’ image I could come up with.

All that sounds fun, interesting, and has a lot of possibilities, but now it’s your turn. Is iBeacon going to replace NFC for payments? How long do you think it will be before we see wide-spread adoption of the technology? What cool and unique use-case scenarios can you dream up? Head down to the comments and let us know!

Thanks to Pocketnow Live viewer Mike Younis for suggesting the topic!
Image credits: Estimote, Big Bang Theory

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video.Read more about Joe Levi here.