Beacon technology is rapidly evolving. Today's devices support use cases that extend from proactive retail engagement to indoor asset tracking and navigation in shopping malls, airports, hospitals, and more.
Thanks to wireless location services, consumers and retailers are reaping unprecedented rewards.
Early beacons were basic devices. They detected a nearby consumer’s smartphone. Provided the consumer had downloaded a companion app, the app was triggered to offer contextual information based on the shopper’s location – for example, a preconfigured special offer on a nearby product range.
Two challenges stymied adoption. First, the smartphone location was determined by Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), a proxy for the distance between receiver and transmitter. However, other factors, such as attenuation due to obstacles, also affect the signal strength, limiting the precision of the distance calculation.
Second, because Bluetooth LE tech’s advertising channels have limited data carrying capability, the signal received by the smartphone just informed it that the beacon was not soliciting pairing and provided the beacon's unique ID. The smartphone app did the heavy lifting of associating the given ID with the appropriate contextual information. No contextual information was provided if the app wasn't open, rendering the beacon useless.
Advertising extension advantages
The introduction of Bluetooth 5 changed things. The updated specification increased Bluetooth LE tech's range and throughput and included an advertising extensions feature that increased the advertising channels' information capacity more than eightfold. That allowed a retailer to use advertising extensions to directly send bespoke information about a special deal or new product ("hey, you looked at coffee machines; right now, you can get 10 percent off the latest model") without the need for an app.
Read more: Bluetooth 5 Advertising Extensions
Later, Bluetooth 5.1 added Direction Finding to the specification. The technology provides the basis for precision positional estimates in two or three dimensions—superior to that facilitated by RSSI—by adding support for Angle-of-Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD) location methods.
Benefits to both sides
These enhancements have changed beacons from a useful but constrained technology into one that offers good support for a range of advanced location services for the benefit of consumers and providers alike. As a result, increasingly sophisticated beacon-enabled business models for consumer engagement are emerging on the scene.
The technology makes it possible for consumers to access directory services providing information on nearby points of interest such as restaurants, take advantage of indoor navigation or wayfinding services within large buildings, and receive personalized marketing directly to their smartphones.
At the same time, retailers can use the technology to collect customer footfall data and gather important insights into their behavior to:
- help improve marketing strategies and campaigns
- use customer location data to analyze trends and understand how a customer demographic is changing in a particular area
- track the location of assets in real-time and manage inventory
- push notifications about ongoing deals and special offers as customers enter or leave a geofenced virtual zone.
One example of the technology in action is the Minew Electronic Shelf Label (ESL) smart shelf-labeling system, which replaces traditional, manually updated price tags with smart tags for improved price visibility. The smart labels also report back to a Nordic-powered gateway and a cloud platform, allowing retailers to remotely monitor and manage their stock and the precise position of products on store shelves. The ESL system also uses Nordic's Bluetooth SoCs to double-up as a network of conventional beacons for marketing to consumers at the 'point-of-label.'
Foundation for further advancements
Bluetooth LE beacons will likely be the foundation for further advancements supported by location services, indoor navigation, and direction-finding technologies. This will boost the sector's health; the segment is expected to exhibit good medium-term expansion, with a 32 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in annual device shipments from 2021 to 2025, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group's (SIG) 2021 Bluetooth Market Update. The report suggests retail is the vertical taking the most significant advantage of Bluetooth Location Services, with 66 percent of all implementations currently supporting use cases in that sector.
In the indoor location services sector, future advances use a combination of short-range wireless beacons and Ultra-Wideband (UWB)—and RF technology which calculates position by measuring the time-of-flight between transmitter and receiver instead of using signal strength as a proxy for distance—for very precise location accuracy. Wi-Fi and cellular will also enter the mix, allowing engineers to trade-off cost, precision, battery life, and interoperability.