Guide to iBeacon Hardware

Having trouble figuring out all of the options for iBeacons 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.

iBeacon: The term iBeacon and beacon are often used interchangeably. But iBeacon is a trademarked term by Apple that refers to the protocols, devices and uses of Bluetooth LE to create user experiences. Apple is vague about what it specifically means by an iBeacon. We take the definition to include the software protocols inside a user’s app, the use cases and user experiences, and the specifications that Apple requires of any beacon that can be called an iBeacon. They have not yet released those specifications.

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.

List of Bluetooth LE Devices

BlueCats

BlueCats iBeacon

Made by Australian firm Plus Location Systems, these cat-shaped beacons use proprietary encryption, replaceable AA batteries and over-the-air remote management to make them easy to manage and maintain.

We haven’t had a chance to see their back-end system, but they advertise a full back-end analytics, enterprise system and SDK. And while the beacons look kind of cat-like, BlueCat refers to the concept of deploying beacons in categories (entrances, department, cash, etc.).

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

Footmarks

footmarks-ibeaconFootmarks bills itself as “digital intelligence for physical spaces”. Their long-lasting beacon boasts 2+ years and their back-end system includes security, analytics, loyalty programs and other tools for the developer.

A graduate of the Techstars + R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator program, the company is looking to provide an experience platform for the world of beacons.

GemTot

Radius iBeaconThe GemTot by Passkit is USB powered beacon that lets you worry less about whether your batteries will run out and more about what settings you should use to drive a better user experience. Passkit has made its mark in creating secure applications for passes, tickets and even commerce – and the Gemtot follows that trend by offering advanced security options and the ability to “lock down” your UUIDs. An excellent choice when you have the ability to plug a beacon into a wall or computer USB port.

Check Out:

Apple Specifications and iBeacon Power

Gimbal by Qualcomm

gimbal-series-20-ibeaconA new and large entrant to the world of beacons, Qualcomm launched its Bluetooth LE powered beacons and extended an existing platform for geofencing and notifications.

Supported by a robust back-end, Gimbal beacons are low-cost devices but charge a per-user fee for back-end support.

Check Out:

Qualcomm Gimbal: New Beacons Set the Bar for Bluetooth
Inside Gimbal: Qualcomm Beacons Tackle Bluetooth LE Challenges

GPShopper Beacon

retail-ibeacon-gpshopperThese beacons extend a suite of in-store analytics products by GPShopper. They can be used for both proximity marketing and, according to the company’s web site, “can also be in “reporting only” mode where they do not broadcast messages, instead they track visits past specific store sections allowing for more detailed analytics on floor traffic to various sections of the store”.

An interesting retail-focused beacon that’s more of an extension of an existing retail analytics platform than a ‘stand-alone’ product but still worth a look.

Kontakt

Kontakt iBeaconKontakt bills itself as the white label solution for Bluetooth LE, specializing in large deployments and providing customized casing (and the promise of 3D printing as part of the process).

We’re in love with our Kontakt beacons – they’ve been our ‘war horse’ for beacon demonstrations and are supported by a back-end RESTful API and other features.

Check Out:

iBeacons with Content Management: Inside Kontakt

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

Sensorberg

sensorberg ibeacon

Sensorberg beacons come with a full SDK and back-end system…and a free t-shirt if you buy the Ultimate Developer Kit. The company is positioning itself as a true “out of the box” experience for developers and retailers – and indicates that you can use other beacons (such as Estimote) to test out its back-end systems.

Sonic Notify

Sonic Notify BeaconsWhile Estimote was first to leverage the press around Apple’s launch of iBeacon, Sonic Notify was already deploying beacons and were perhaps first out of the gate with Bluetooth LE support.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of Sonic Notify is their support for older Android devices by combining Bluetooth LE signals with audio signals for phones that don’t have Bluetooth LE capabilities.

Check Out:

iBeacons with Android Support: Inside Sonic Notify
iBeacon at the Mall: Sonic Notify Inks Major Deal

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.