What Is iBeacon And How Can It Be Used? - 10 Oct 2013

Geo-location has never been a strong point on mobile devices. Some applications can direct you to the shop you’re looking for, but often they’ll be adamant that it’s on the opposite side of the road to its actual location. iBeacon is a new form of Bluetooth-based Micro-location-system which allows businesses to pinpoint your exact position, and provide a better location based service.


iBeacon uses location-based information about an iPhone and its user to send them information, while also allowing users to send their own information. Each beacon can cover a range of a bout 50 metres, and uses Bluetooth LE (Bluetooth Low Energy) to accurately tell where a phone, and therefore the user, is in relation to it’s 50 metre radius.

What Could Retailers Use iBeacon For?

For retailers, iBeacon opens up a whole new world of marketing possibilities. With current geo-location data it’s hard for a business to be able to tell exactly where you are, but with their own set of iBeacon they could accurately track you, sending you promotions as soon as you enter their iBeacon radius.

Large shopping centers will be able to track consumers as they pass by each shop, but the true marketing power of iBeacon lies in the hands of those individual shops. When someone walks into a clothing retailer, they could instantly be sent a summary of what they purchased on their last visit, or online, and given a list of items they might like this visit, alongside any special promotions.

Since iBeacon has such a wide radius there’s no need for retailers to spend thousands of pounds on having a beacon for each tag in the shop. With similar technology such as NFC, shoppers must be within 4-20cm of the tag before they can receive information and promotions on the item on their phone, resulting in many people needing to ‘bump’ their phone with every item. iBeacon will allow users to browse through all the items in front of them without getting up close and personal with the tags.

bumping phones

How far can businesses go with iBeacon?

The new feature, which can only be used with iOS7, has potentially limitless capabilities at this point in time, and not just for retailers. Security in office or residential buildings can also take advantage of the new feature from Apple. Using an iPhone 5S, an employee could walk up to their office building, scan their fingerprint on their phone, and unlock the secure door in front of them. Using the 5S and iBeacon in this way is not only cheaper for businesses, but it also means that there’s much less chance of an employee being locked out in the morning, as people are less likely to forget their phone than they are to forget a security pass.

Businesses know people live very busy lives today, and have little time to spend browsing products, as they’ve most likely already chosen what they want online. With iBeacon it’s even easier for people to get what they need fast, and can completely avoid the need to exchange money in person.

Say someone wanted to buy a pack of donuts on the way to work one Friday morning. There’s bound to be a rush, and they could get delayed, but not if they order before they get to the till. Using iBeacon as soon as customers walk in and log into the shop, a prompt can be sent asking if they want to order their donuts. Customers can walk in and head for the queue, making their order as they wait, and paying for it using the iPhone 5S’ fingerprint scanner. When the order is complete they’ll be given a QR code, or some other form or order reference, which they then need only present to the staff to verify that they are who they say they are, and can walk off with their donuts in no time at all.

There are more businesses than retailers and offices that can use iBeacon to their advantage however. Many theme parks offer fast-track tickets, and these can be combined with iBeacon to allow visitors to quickly enter the fast-track lane at attractions without the need for staff to check their tickets every time, as the parks systems will only let those with them through. Being able to track visitors with pinpoint accuracy will also give theme parks the chance to tell them about nearby food stands, and the distance in metres of every ride around them to help them better navigate the park.

Museums are another beneficiary of iBeacon, as the technology is so accurate that it can act as a handheld tour guide for the entire premises. Museums can put together the best guided tour possible, including step by step audio if required, providing it to every visitor. The pinpoint location tracking means that visitors won’t even need to prompt the next bit of information, it will automatically play and guide them through the museum, just like a professional guide would. Using this form of guided tour, visitors can spend longer in the areas they’re interested in, and skip those they don’t want to visit.

museum app for ibeacons

Similarly, airports and subways will be able to utilise iBeacon to help people navigate to their destination. In airports, people can be directed to each desk they need to visit in turn, and then along the fastest route to their plane. In subways, people can be shown the fastest route to their destination in accordance with which station they’re at, as well as which trains are currently running, both of which will dynamically change the route throughout the day.

Since iBeacon is so precise, it can tell shops or venues when people are entering or exiting the building or area. What this allows businesses to do is send different promotions and messages that are appropriate to what the user is doing. For example, if someone is leaving a shop without buying anything, an employee can send them a prompt to use their café, or a promotional offer for a free drink, which could keep them in the shop for longer, ending with a purchase that would have been lost otherwise.

Another application for iBeacon could be use at exhibitions. Businesses are always trying to grab potential customers’ attention when exhibiting at shows around the country, but it can be hard to do so without hassling every passer-by. With iBeacon, businesses can have promotions or prompts sent to people entering their radius, not only encouraging them to come over and talk, but also giving them something to talk about.

For businesses to perform well at exhibitions they need to get relevant information to everyone passing their stand, just in case some of them are in need of their services. Using iBeacon a business can have a set page of information beamed to every passing phone, not only making them look professional and modern, but also prompt people to learn what their business does, taking an interest in them even if only for a minute or two.

Apple have also gone so far as to say that iBeacon could be to assist those with limited sight, or even no sight at all. Homes could be fitted with devices that respond to the location of a phone, meaning if someone enters a room with their phone in their pocket, the lights and appliances automatically switch on. Specialised doors can even be fitted that will open based on the location of a phone, meaning some people could become a lot more independent than they currently are.

estimote devicesHow much is iBeacon going to cost businesses?

Currently beacons can be pre ordered from Estimote, a newly formed company that launched to sell the beacons, at $99 (around £62). This price is for Developer Preview Kits, with the final products to be released at a later date. If this price is similar to what businesses can expect to pay, about $30 (around £18) for each beacon, then it shouldn’t cost too much to completely cover a location, as each beacon has a 50 metre radius.

The Developer Preview Kits will be shipped towards the end of this month, meaning shops should start utilising the new technology soon after. PayPal has already developed for iBeacon, allowing users to log into PayPal as they walk into a shop, and wirelessly pay for anything they buy in there, not only eliminating the need for cards and cash, but for tills as well. Most businesses will no doubt use PayPal as a way for shoppers to purchase in shops on their phones, as it’s a secure payment gateway that everyone will already have an account with, making the integration of iPhone in-store shopping that much easier.

What is they key difference between iBeacon and competitors?

iBeacon is a new feature for a brand new operating system. It will use the latest technology on the market to create a fast, user-friendly experience that is mutually beneficial to both customers and businesses. Other mobile platforms can use the beacons from companies such as Estimote, but with lower-spec hardware and software behind them, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to compete with the speed, efficiency, and accuracy of iBeacon.

Tell us what you think of iBeacon and the change it’s going to make to your everyday shopping in the comments below. You could even include your ideas for how it could be used if you want.

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