Guide to Beacon Hadware

Having trouble figuring out all of the options for Beacons and Bluetooth LE devices? You’re not alone.

Every day there seems to be a new device or beacon being launched – and confusing things further, the terms iBeacon, beacon and Bluetooth LE often seem interchangeable.

To try to make life slightly easier, this page is your resource and link list for the physical devices called ‘beacons’.

Definitions

First, however, a few simple definitions:

Beacons: A beacon is any device that transmits a signal which allows another device to determine its proximity to the broadcaster. In a store, a beacon lets a customer’s app determine that it’s close to the candy aisle. The beacon doesn’t transmit content, it simply transmits a signal that lets a user’s phone or tablet figure out what its proximity to the beacon. The content (a coupon, for example) is delivered separately to the user’s app.

Bluetooth Low Energy: This is the specification for one type of signal that beacons transmit. There are other types of signals that power beacons (e.g. audio signals) but Bluetooth LE has the advantage that it is low energy and is ‘native’ to most modern phones and tablets.

Bluetooth SIG: The Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) is responsible for managing the revisions and branding of Bluetooth. Branding can be added to illustrate the different features or advantages of a new bluetooth revision. In the case of the bluetooth 4.0 specification, the branding ‘Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)’ and ‘Bluetooth Smart’ were used to illustrate the advances in power management and a wider array of capabilities that this version included. By contrast the most recent bluetooth specification, Bluetooth 5.0, tends to have “IoT” branding to illustrate a focus on ‘Interent of Things’ devices and connectivity.

iBeacon: The term iBeacon and beacon are often used interchangeably. iBeacon is a trademarked term by Apple that refers to a specific configuration of the bluetooth proximity profile. Think Jacuzzi vs hot-tub. One is a brand name, one is a generic. Otherwise, detection of an ‘iBeacon’ signal is no different that detection of regular bluetooth proximity profile signals.

EddyStone: EddyStone is the Google answer to “iBeacon”. Where iBeacon is a specific configuration of the Bluetooth “proximity profile”. EddyStone refers to four distinct, Google originated standards.

  • EddyStone Universal Resource Identifier (URI)
  • EddyStone Universal Resource Link (URL)
  • EddyStone Telemetry (TLM)
  • EddyStone Ephemeral Identifier (EID)

Physical Web: Much in the way that ‘iBeacon’ is a specific configuration of the Bluetooth proximity profile; Physical web is similar EddyStone URL only with specific requirements.  Physical web URLs require the use of an SSL certificate. Meaning, the website must be secured and use HTTPS.

Devices: The list below includes all devices that are capable of Bluetooth LE broadcasting. But a device can include other functionality. An iPhone, for example, can be programmed to act as a beacon. But it obviously does a whole lot more. Similarly, a beacon in a store can transmit Bluetooth LE signals, but they can also detect humidity, temperature, acceleration, or include modules for WiFi.

Sample of Bluetooth LE Devices

Estimote

Estimote Beacon

The Estimote is perhaps one of the best-known beacons – a product, perhaps, more of timing and press coverage, but backed by a world-class team. With over 10,000 developer kits distributed since its launch in 2013, Estimote has stated its focus on providing software solutions to support its devices and on the retailer market.

Check Out:

Problems With Estimote
What’s Inside an Estimote
Getting Started with Estimote
Getting Started with Estimote (2)
Estimote: On the Path to Success?
Estimote: Edit Major/Minor Properties
Estimote Virtual Beacon

Rad Beacon

Radius iBeaconThe RadBeacon by Radius Networks is one of our top choices in part because it avoids batteries and is powered by USB. Plug it into your computer or plug it into a wall and it works instantly – no software required. Radius provides an elegant app that allows you to set the major/minor, advertising and power – and because you don’t need to worry about the battery running out you can set it to create a highly responsive user experience. You might not always be able to plug in your beacon (in a store aisle, for example) but when you can, USB power is a preferred route.

Radius Virtual Beacons

Radius iBeaconRadius Networks also provides virtual beacons (turning your Mac, for example, into a beacon) and a Raspberry Pi developer kit.

We’re in love with the software and services that Radius provides – and tend to think of them as the Google App engine for a world of beacons.

Check Out:

iBeacon for Raspberry Pi
Radius Networks Investment Puts it On the Fast Track
Turn Your Mac Into a Beacon

Bake Your Own Beacons

The above vendors provide a full-service stack for Bluetooth LE powered devices: they either provide back-end management of your beacons, software developer kits, or content management services.

But you can also create your own beacons from kits or chips. This is especially useful if you want to build your own service architecture and not rely on the ‘cloud services’ of another provider. This is by no means an exhaustive list but some links to get you started:

The Future of iBeacon

But where would we be if we didn’t imagine what’s coming next? For a hint of what’s around the corner, here are some products and concepts that we hope will make it to market.

Are we missing something? Please let us know and we’ll add it to the list. And if you’re looking to stay up-to-date on the world of beacons, join our once-a-week mailing list for information we don’t always share on the site.