What is iBeacon technology?

The way we shop has changed dramatically over the last decade with the explosion of online retailers and daily deal websites: and now it is enjoying its latest revolution in the form of iBeacon technology.

Labelled by Apple as a “new class of low-powered, low cost transmitters that can notify iOS 7 devices of their presence”, the technology offers location-based services and information for iPhones and other devices compatible with iOS. However, this isn’t limited to Apple owners alone: because iBeacon for Android is also within the capabilities of the technology.  

So what exactly does iBeacon technology do?

Each beacon is effectively a cheap, small Bluetooth transmitter. Every time you move within range of one of these beacons a signal is transmitted to your phone which will gauge a response from any relevant app you have installed on your device.

As an example, if you are close to a beacon within a shop, and you have the retailer’s app installed on your phone, then an alert could be sent to you featuring a special offer. It’s not just for shops either… if you visit a museum, for example, it could be possible for the museum’s app to offer information about the display you are closest to by using beacons that are placed close to each exhibit. Indeed the concept could also revolutionise GPS systems by vastly improving mapping while you’re indoors.

How exactly does iBeacon work?

iBeacon has been designed for iOS7 and above: meaning it will work with the iPhone 4s and above; the third generation of the Apple iPad onwards; and the fifth generations of the iPod Touch and iPad Mini onwards. As a sign for the future, there may be an equivalent of iBeacon for Android as it is compatible with Android 4.3 onwards.

ibeacon Symbol

Each device that has the capability of sharing data and comes with BLE – Bluetooth Low Energy – could potentially send signals across to iBeacon apps. BLE is wireless technology that transfers data over short distances: and, as the name hints, it has been designed to limit costs and energy consumption. Though the iPad can both receive and emit iBeacon signals, Apple doesn’t actually make beacons itself: instead these come from third parties.

As with most features that rely on a signal, there could be limitations to iBeacon technology caused by objects such as doors and walls that could potentially shorten range. Indeed Apple has suggested that water can also affect the signal: meaning even the human body could make a signal weaker.

Is this iBeacon technology actually being used in the real world?

Currently, iBeacon hardware and technology is still in its infancy: with Apple only beginning testing on the technology in December, 2013, in various retail stores in the USA. A trial has also been conducted by Virgin Atlantic within Heathrow Airport. It allowed passengers going through security to pull up a mobile boarding pass for the aircraft automatically: so they didn’t need to search for it during the inspection process. The likes of Tesco and Waitrose were also among the early adopters of iBeacon in the UK: testing it in the London area.

Does this mean you’ll be bombarded with alerts wherever you go?

If you fear that your phone will constantly be sending you alerts while you walk down the high street, then this is certainly a risk: however, you do have some control over this.

Firstly, beacons can’t send alerts to you unless you have the corresponding apps on your device: so without them, you’ll be able to walk down the high street in peace. In addition, for you to receive an alert even with the app, you’d have to cross the minimum distance threshold and remain at that distance for at least 20 seconds before you receive the notification.

Of course, if you still think that you’re being hassled too much then you do have an option to switch it off. For example, you could opt out by simply changing your device permissions as part of the location services: just go to “settings – privacy – location services” and switch off Bluetooth or even uninstall the app altogether.

So why is this innovation so important?

One of the reasons why iBeacon technology has grabbed so many headlines is because it potentially represents a significant step forward for mobile payments. Smart phone makers have been eager to find a technology that can provide a standard format for fast payments: and iBeacon could be it. It is possible that you could be sent a coupon while in a store and buy a product without ever needing to see a staff member. The potential is so huge that it is already facing rivals in this area: such as PayPal beacon technology that allows a shopper to log in and pay with their PayPal account while using their phone.

However, it also allows for retailers, brands and platforms to know exactly where a customer is at any particular time. This gives them the chance to send meaningful and targeted advertising that is designed to trigger actions instantly. For example, it could be as simple as “Welcome to Tesco: don’t miss our offer on cornflakes on aisle four”.

Indeed from mobile payments to implementation outside theme parks, airports and concert venues for faster entry: the potential for iBeacon technology is limitless.

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