Beacon Baby Steps

As I put this blog together, I do so knowing that I risk the ridicule of those who have gotten a lot farther in both understanding beacons and using them for some real-world value proposition. Though I understand transmitters of all types very well and I’ve covered other beacon-related initiatives (like Aerohive’s integration of beacons in APs ) and done my share of reading on how beacons are gaining in popularity as building blocks in a number of applications, I’ll admit to really not “getting” them yet to any technical depth. But that is starting to change, as I’ll tell you about here. And as an added bonus to you, I get to drop a few names of really smart people that I have the privilege of interacting with on occasion.

Free Beacons!

Awhile back, Ryan Adzima turned me on to a beacon giveaway that netted me three of these. Not being one to pass up free cool stuff , I got my beacons- and they ended up sitting on a shelf almost a year (I basically didn’t know what the hell to do with them.)

Fast Forward- Renewed Interest

I follow a lot of industry goings on as a freelance analyst. It’s no secret that Location-Based Services/Analytics is a running topic du jour in the tech media, and many a WLAN vendor has announced their own beacon story- like Aruba and Cisco’s Meraki. Knowing that there’s a lot of buzz around beacons, I worked them into my daily Twitter #WIFIQ question on June 4. The conversation that ensued reminded me that I was overdue to play with my Qualcomm beacons.

What sparked me to get back on the path that Ryan Adzima started me down was conversation with AccessAgility’s Zaib Kaleem and Extreme Networks’ Mike Leibovitz. Zaib turned me on to some beacon-related apps, and Mike triggered my interest on proximity to beacons being used as one component in banking authentication. Newly energized (see what I did there?), I busted out my Qualcomm Gimbals and got busy gettin’ busy.

Time to Play

Laying hands on my three neglected Gimbals first brought back the clueless feeling I had when I first looked at them and put them on the shelf. But this time I wasn’t content to stay in the dark. I took the bold step of cracking each one open and getting the watch battery connected, then I found the Gimbal Management App in the Apple app store.

At first, the App couldn’t see my beacons! Gotta be dead batteries, I thought… but then I went to the Gimbal Manager site, recovered my long-forgotten password, and figured out that I needed to activate each beacon.Gimbal

I also needed to configure each and upgrade firmware, which was quite easy. (We’ll come back to the “configure” thing.) Bingo! They showed up in the iPhone app.beacons

At this point, I realized/reminded myself of a few basic important facts:

  • Until the beacons were added to my account online, they were dead to me despite being powered up. (Private is default, you can make them “public” so anyone can see them, btw.)
  • My online account and my iOS account are synced for beacon management.
  • The beacons report their battery strength and the ambient temperature, and the mobile app tells how strong each beacon is being received
  • Though I now have three live beacons that can be managed, I still don’t know what to really do with them… no use case, no business application to hook them to, etc.

Knowing that beacons are all about proximity and location, I embarked on a simple exercise. Down a long hallway with three pictures hanging on the wall, I put one beacon on each picture frame, then watched my app show signal strength for each as I walked the hall.hall

This seemed like a reasonable way to see what might go on behind the scenes at the signal level on a walking tour, or in a retail environment where different app events are triggered by a customer coming close to a beacon. Here, this is the view as I transitioned from Beacon 1 and got close to Beacon 2, with Beacon 3 at farthest point down the hall.

Big deal, right? To me, it is. That’s because yesterday, I had ZERO first-hand working knowledge of beacons. With this these simple steps, I now get the technology and how it’s managed at a very, very basic level. I feel like I get the foundation, and I do understand many of the big use cases for beacons. It’s that middle ground of real-world implementation that I have yet to learn. Baby steps…

Back to the beacon config thing. For such a simple device, there are infinite permutations for what you can do with them. I think this is what is so hard to wrap your head around, especially given that along the line you may have to do some coding (or steal somebody else’s code). Zooming in on the menu gives a sense of just how many directions you might go bringing beacon-based use cases to life:
beacon menu

So… I now know a little, and know that I still don’t understand really USING beacons despite understanding the scenarios where they are employed. But with what little I now have touched and brought to life, I do understand links like this and this a bit better. Still a long way to go though, but ya gotta start somewhere!

12 thoughts on “Beacon Baby Steps

  1. apcsb

    Lee, you have to have an App. Without the app it’s all dead weight or blasting broadcast into outer space. Once you have the app and use case, using beacons becomes as transparent as using barcode labels (or RFID tags) – just tag whatever you need with them. But this time apps can not only recognize the beacon, but also the distance.
    Wait until we get phased array antennas into these babies (think beamforming-type antennas) and phones, so that you will be able to distinguish not just the RSSI distance, but also the angle (to a certain extent, of course).

    1. wirednot Post author

      Thanks for the comment (and for reading). The app part comes next for sure, but I did want to first understand beacons first-hand from the basic unit perspective (see max range for myself, gain basic sense of proximity capabilities, get how to activate and manage, etc). Now I’m looking for a simple hobbyist-grade app to advance my experience, then I feel I’ll be in better shape to “get” how the bigger applications using beacons really work at the technical level.

      1. apcsb

        Hm, if you find one – please do blog about it! 🙂

        But before that you must have a goal. What’s your process? Why do you need to know that you are in vicinity of XYZ?
        This is why so many RFID deployments used to fail in the early days – they had the tech, but could not build the business process.

        A simple app would be a museum guide:

        Each exhibit has a beacon set at low power (close proximity).
        Once your museum guide app (on tou phone!) senses a beacon, it opens a web page for that exhibit with extra info, multimedia, etc.

        I wish all museums had that – museums are much more fun when you really understand what you’re looking at, and why it deserved its place in the museum.

      2. wirednot Post author

        For the starting volley, I’d be happy accomplishing one that I’ve heard other people do- when you walk into a room and get near a beacon, your smartphone shows a “hello” message, and when you leave the room you get a “goodbye” message. To my pea brain, that would be a good foundation in understanding the whole beacon thing better as a simple system. I know that sooner rather than later I’ll be engaged in bringing someone else’s beacon goals to life (the museum thing is great example, as is handicap pathing in a complex building) and I just don’t want to be caught clueless. Also, I think once I was able to master some simple application, it wouldn’t take long to graduate to dreaming up more interesting use cases of my own.

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  4. Jeremy Jenkins (@kaaawakiwi)

    There are so many use cases for this technology it is amazing. For those with crappy memories you could activate a beacon in your home and when the signal is received, display a relevant reminder based on time. I even saw someone talk about taking the garbage out reminders!

    Imagine taking a bus as a tourist in a foreign city. Beacons at predefined destinations along a specific route – BOOM – instant mass broadcasting of store deals to a busload of people who don’t have a clue.

    Heck you could even use them as a point to point reference right? Think of it like an ant following it’s invisible scent on the ground all the way back to the nest…. As you can see – it shouldn’t be hard to come up with use cases.

    1. wirednot Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I agree on the endless use cases, I struggle with the programming needed to bring them to life, myself.

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