Beacon Bits: A developer tool to explore the power of iBeacons

iBeacon technology was first introduced to the public by Apple at WWDC 2013; the goal: to enable a new level of location applications made possible with Bluetooth LE technologies introduced back in 2010. These new, low-power devices would allow manufacturers to create beacons, devices that could advertise themselves with a unique set of identifiers and could run off a typical coin cell battery for 6 months or more. With this technology and Apple-developed algorithms, an iOS device would be able to calculate its distance to a beacon, allowing for proximity-based experiences in applications. A particular problem this solves is indoor and underground location positioning, where GPS cannot penetrate walls of buildings to provide triangulation signals and determine location.

This technology has existed for more than a year, but many applications that could use beacon technology haven’t yet for many reasons. Developers were not aware due to limited public rollouts which are mostly confined to Apple stores and MLB stadiums. Beacon hardware itself can be expensive and difficult to set up using special apps. There are already some apps in the store that will turn your phone into a beacon, but they require a developer to already know about beacons and how they work. In addition, they aren't very well-designed.

To solve the problem of promoting iBeacon awareness, we created our app “Beacon Bits” with the goal of showing how iBeacon technology can be used in an actual application to detect the proximity of other iOS devices running the app. The app requires zero configuration to set up - simply enable Bluetooth, tap “Locate” on one device and “Broadcast” on another, and you’ll see the “Locate” device quickly identify other iOS devices in range. Using ContextHub, our developer platform for rapidly creating contextual experiences, the app is able to respond to users changing the name of their device and have it change in near real-time on devices locating other iOS devices. In addition, once a device is found, you’re able to send messages without ever having to exchange data with each other. This interaction is an example of a proximity-based action that wouldn’t have been possible with this level of granularity before.

“Beacon Bits” can also be used to discover beacons already out in the world. If you have the universally-unique identifier (UUID), you can input it into the application to discover beacons located around you and gauge their proximity to your iOS device. This is helpful during development, when you need a quick app to test the quality and responsiveness of beacons from different manufacturers before doing a wide-scale deployment to a facility.

We’ve found that a simple application like this enables non-technically minded people to quickly understand how iBeacon technology can be used out in the field to build smarter applications. Possible use cases include bringing up specific documents in your app when a user enters a specific room or presenting a coupon to a user as they walk down a merchant aisle at a retailer. In the future, this technology will allow for better indoor mapping and indoor turn-by-turn directions in large areas like a mall. We hope you think of Beacon Bits as only a small demonstration of the power of iBeacons and what they can bring to your applications.

You can download Beacon Bits for free in the App store.

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