Recently, I have been researching techniques for indoor positioning, where GPS does not work. Although it is not widely deployed yet, one technology that looks quite interesting is called “iBeacon”, an Apple-designed (and currently unofficially documented) profile of Bluetooth Low Energy.
An iBeacon uses a Bluetooth signal to broadcast an ID to any listening device (most likely a mobile phone). From that, the distance from the iBeacon can be estimated from the signal strength and additional processing could yield more precise positioning. The iOS SDK also supports built-in geofencing and notification with iBeacons in the Core Location Framework. The use of Bluetooth Low Energy makes power consumption quite low and an iBeacon could last a long time even on a small battery so that only minimal maintenance is required.
As to reading an iBeacon signal from a phone, on the Apple side, it only works on iOS7 (and the hardware has to support it, although iPhone 4S and up do). On the Android side, version 4.3 has added the necessary Bluetooth LE support in the SDK and there already is an open source Android library to interact with an iBeacon. On the broadcasting side, an iPhone can serve as an iBeacon for testing purposes and there are prototypes of dedicated low-powered devices (for example, Estimote).
There are lots of potential applications for indoor positioning and not just on the marketing / retail sector, for example in the healthcare or home automation fields. Of course, iBeacon is not the only game in town for that (Wifi positioning comes to mind) but the fact that it is already being deployed bodes well for its chance of success:
- A software called Geohopper has gained support for iBeacon in its latest version and the developer has written a very interesting in-depth review of iBeacon that also discusses applications of the technology.
- MLB (Major League Baseball) is already planning on rolling out the technology in all their stadiums next year, along with support in their official “At the ballpark” app.