What is iBeacon & How Does it Work?

ibeacon-communicationiBeacon is the name used for Apple’s technology that provides location-based services and information to mobile applications on both Android and iOS devices using Bluetooth Low Energy. The iBeacon (or beacon) broadcasts its identifier to nearby portable electronic devices, enabling those devices to perform actions when in close proximity to it.

The terms beacon and iBeacon are often used interchangeably because various vendors have created iBeacon-compatible hardware transmitters. Apple has yet to manufacture an actual beacon, but has built the technology into its current devices. Third-party manufacturers, including Gimbal, Kontakt and Estimote, build the beacons—which can be purchased on manufacturers’ websites at anywhere from $5 to three for $99 and up—that communicate with devices.

The beacons themselves are small transmitters that can be placed in stores or specific points of interest, such as museums or airports. Apps installed on your mobile devices “listen” for the signal and respond accordingly when the phone comes within range.

Let’s say you pass a beacon while in a grocery store. If you have the retailer’s app installed, it might display a special offer alert for you. Or during a visit to a museum, the museum’s app would provide information about various displays. The technology can approximate when a user has entered, exited or lingered in a specific area, and can offer various levels of interaction accordingly.

iBeacon is being used by numerous companies, including Macy’s, Dollar General, Virgin Atlantic and Major League Baseball. Virgin Atlantic uses iBeacon at Heathrow Airport in London, providing mobile boarding passes to passengers as they get close to the security checkpoint. It’s also used by MLB at various stadiums to offer attendees customized information about their seats, the teams and coupons for free snacks.

Aside from the seemingly unlimited advertising opportunities it can provide, the iBeacon can also be used:

  • In restaurant environments to assist waiters with orders and tracking;
  • In classrooms for exploration and scientific games;
  • At zoos, identifying animals and characteristics;
  • In homes or businesses, automating garage doors and lights.

The key to the effectiveness of iBeacon is that a customer must have his or her Bluetooth turned on and the organization’s app installed in order to receive special offers or other information. And consumers can opt out by simply turning off Bluetooth, uninstalling the app or changing permissions.

Another hurdle is the potential for the Bluetooth signal to be blocked by walls, windows and other barriers, causing the signal strength to fluctuate—thus making it more difficult to determine distance.

This technology offers new and exciting opportunities for businesses to engage consumers. Marketers can use it to monitor shopping patterns and spending habits, as well as the ability to target specific audiences.

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