Evaluating iBeacons

It’s pretty much impossible to have an interest in apps or interior location and not have heard of iBeacons recently. Originally “announced” to virtually no fanfare at all during Apple’s WWDC last year, iBeacons have gone from a single bullet-point in a presentation, to being presented as a silver-bullet for all your interior location needs.

Based around Bluetooth LE technology, also referred to as BLE or Bluetooth Smart, iBeacons provide a simple set of interfaces targeted towards iOS devices allowing your device to tell when it is close to a small, inexpensive beacon which is installed somewhere interesting.

The intention is that iBeacons allow application developers to make their apps more location-aware in situations where GPS and related technologies simply don’t work well.

Apadmi CTO, Adam Fleming, has had chance to work with the iBeacon technology and gave us his verdict…

“Having used the APIs and had a play with some of the physical beacon devices – notably the lovely hardware from Estimote there are a couple of warts – but on the whole the system works well if you stick within the boundaries of what it’s designed to do.

“If you can define a zone of interest as being a broadly circular region around a place that you can put a beacon, and you’re not in a particularly challenging radio environment – then you can pretty easily build a fairly cute system that will do something interesting when you’re near to the beacon. This includes triggering geofence–style behaviour from the background on iOS – subject to the usual geofence limitations.

“There are however, a couple of warts. Not least of which is device coverage. Whilst all newer iPhones are capable of implementing the iBeacon interfaces included in iOS 7 – this doesn’t include the iPhone 4 or 3GS – which doesn’t have the required hardware. Granted, both of these devices are getting a bit long in the tooth, but there are still quite a few around.

“Android coverage is a totally different picture. Whilst the Android OS has supported BLE since 4.3 (Jellybean – API 18) – that still only accounts for less than 10% of handsets according to Google’s uptake dashboards.

“It’s also worth bearing in mind that what iBeacons are designed to tell you when you’re close to them – the “little lighthouse” analogy is used extensively. What they’re not designed to do is tell you exactly where you are – this isn’t an interior GPS which will let you build an indoor sat-nav.

“The other thing to bear in mind is the Bluetooth is a fairly low-energy standard, and BLE even more-so. As such, the behaviour of the beacons is subject to the usual challenges faced by bluetooth – not least of which is that water tends to absorb the signals – and people are mostly water; and structural elements (walls, wiring, large chunks of metal) which tend to reflect or refract the signal in interesting ways. Generally, this just means that the beacons need to be placed carefully – and you shouldn’t rely on a simple model of signal falloff to predict distance from the sensor in any precise manner.

“As it stands, iBeacons are a really interesting technology that can work really well within certain bounded use-cases, but it’s a long way from an interior-GPS solution.”