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’.
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
Accent Advanced Systems
iBks101 are one of a suite of products by Accent Advanced Systems. While we haven’t tested these snappy looking devices, they seem like they might be a nice option if all you need is a beacon around which to build a system (with many beacons the ‘back-end’ is included – whether you want it or not!)
The company advertises the beacons as being fully customizable, 2 year battery life, and secure password protected ODA firmware.
AIRCable USB Dongle
Not every beacon sticks to a wall. There are a range of options for USB beacons (plug one into a compatible cash register or store computer, for example) and AIRCable is one of them.
The AIRcable iBeacon is a BLE-Central device for making connections to Bluetooth Low Energy devices, read/write characteristics and broadcast dynamic information, e.g. as iBeacon. It is used by BLE developers as well as BLE automation software. The company also offers a BLE module to let you create your own dongle or Bluetooth LE device.
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.).
Built around the BlueGiga bluetooth module, the beacons run for two years on a single battery.
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.
The GeLo product are solid all-weather beacons that have the benefit of a resilient case and a standard set of batteries. But the promise of GeLo is a system for managing content through provision of a back-end content management system matched to your GeLo beacons.
While the system is still in the earliest iterations, GeLo has been deploying their beacons at museums, schools and other venues and provide a solid alternative for what we think of as requirements for ‘heavy lifting’.
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.
While 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.
Stick N Find was originally targeting the consumer market with beacons that acted similar to a Tile. But the company realized that the advanced work they had done on battery conservation and the algorithms they had built into their firmware could have a larger place in the market. They’ve since launched four beacons geared to the retail, industrial and other markets and are building support tools and kits for developers.
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:
- COIN Arduino Developer Kits
- NetClearance Beacon Gateway Uses WiFi to Manage Beacon Firmware
- Low Energy Chips and Software from CSR
- Red Bear Labs BLE Frameworks and Kits
- KS Technologies Alpha Program
- Nordic Semiconductor Bluetooth LE
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.