Introducing nearables: Personal portable beacons

By Pål Kastnes August 16, 2016


As adoption of proximity technology gathers pace, the next generation of beacons have already hit the market. Thinner, lighter, more portable and equipped with sensors, “nearables” open up a whole new range of possibilities for keen app developers.

The way in which we interact with the world around us is changing fast. Bluetooth beacon technology is already transforming industries such as retail and events, while nearables look set to open up proximity technology to a whole new set of applications.

If you are in any doubt that beacons are about to go big, take a look at what’s happening at major events around the globe.

Beacon technology goes mainstream

Up until now, beacons have mostly been utilized by technology-focused events such as CES, SXSWi and the Mobile World Congress. But this year the Turkish city of Antalya is hosting EXPO 2016, a non-technology event that has bought into beacons on a scale never seen before.

Before the event ends in October, more than 8 million people are expected to visit. Many will use the indoor navigation app, which is built on top of a network of almost 5,000 beacons from Estimote.

Attendees will be able to see which events are trending and receive step-by-step navigation instructions between points of interest at this vast location. Visually impaired users will also receive voice instructions and tailored content.

The VesLabs CMS allows the organizers to alter content and notifications for particular areas throughout the duration of the event, while real-time data can help them to evaluate the effectiveness of individual events and promotional campaigns.

Nearables: The next step in beacon technology

But beacon manufacturer Estimote aren’t resting on this success. They recently launched a small wireless beacon that can be attached to pretty much any object. The thinnest and smallest of these beacons have been dubbed ‘stickers’, and are in fact microcomputers with in-built sensors that broadcast a Bluetooth signal to nearby smart devices.

Stickers take beacon technology far beyond location identification. The stickers come with built-in sensors that can measure temperature, motion and light, for example, which opens up a multitude of possibilities to connect smartphone apps with the real world in far more detail than ever before.

Welcome to the world of nearables.

Opportunities for developers

The advantage of Estimote’s stickers over standard Bluetooth beacons are that at just 3mm thick, they can be treated almost as wearables and be attached to a wide range of things: Valuable objects such as laptop computers, moving objects such as bicycles, or even a dog collar.

Even something as simple as an app to alert someone when their bag or laptop is more than a set distance away from them could see massive market demand.

Take the retail industry as an example. Store managers already know which products are selling and which are not, but wouldn’t it be just as useful to know which products people are interested in, but didn’t end up buying?

This is where the in-built sensors really make things interesting for developers.

By attaching a sticker to individual display products, the store manager can easily identify which products garnered most “pick-up” attention, and perhaps run campaigns on those products. From the customer perspective, a nearby tablet computer could display a time-sensitive special offer or a list of “also-boughts” whenever a particular product is picked up. Thanks to emerging Eddystone technology, the object could also transmit a message directly to the user’s device.

Because stickers are sensor-triggered, they can be deployed liberally without the signal congestion issues associated with always-on beacons, which can transmit 'competing' signals if there are too many installed within a given area.

Inside a nearable sticker

Estimote stickers are in fact tiny microcomputers that utilize a Nordic Semiconductor nRF51 series SoC with an ARM Cortex-M0 processor. Powered by a single coin battery, the stickers also feature Bluetooth low energy capability, and a variety of sensors. They broadcast radio signals through a built-in antenna and claim the battery life on a sticker is at least one year.

Read also: Things you should know about Bluetooth range

Smart devices within range receive the radio signals, which relevant apps can interact with. As more web browsers support the emerging physical web (e.g. Eddystone URLs), users will have the option of accessing relevant web content without needing to download an app.

Estimote’s SDK and cloud grants apps full access to sensor readings and metadata, including beacon ownership, object type, and precise location, allowing developers incredible flexibility in developing new solutions.

The exciting advent of nearables means we take one step closer to a fully connected world. We will be watching with interest to see what the IoT development community do with this technology.


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By: Pål Kastnes

Pål Kastnes joined Nordic in March 2015. He has 18 years of experience from the embedded systems market working in several areas. This includes IC design, system verification, production testing and device specification on the factory side. He spent 6 years as a key account manager embedded within the sales organization for the Asian market based out of Tokyo, Japan. The last years he has been driving training programs globally as well as providing key account support for EMEA. His main focus now Trainings and user experience, focusing on ease of use of all the elements involved in the design process of connected devices.



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