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Technical and Operational Considerations When Deploying Beacons

 

Beacon Overview

A beacon is simply a small, inconspicuous hardware device that is periodically sending out a signal which is basically intended to say "here i am".  It is designed to provide this signal to devices that enter its' operating range and are listening for the signal via Bluetooth technology.  Beacons transmit their signal utilizing the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) protocol.   BLE allows for much lower power consumption than traditional Bluetooth because it allows devices to be connected without needing to send a continuous stream of data.  In the specific case of Beacons, the device that 'hears' the beacon's signal doesn't actually 'connect' to the beacon, instead it simply records it contact with that beacon.  For example, just as in the case of WiFi networks, if you have WiFi enabled on a mobile device and you get within range of a WiFi network, that mobile device will recognize the WiFi network and list it under it's available networks section, the beacon interaction fundamentally works the same way.  This capability allows for a number of interesting interactions with consumers that we will describe in this article. 

Typically uses for beacons

Normally you would deploy beacons to identify when customers are in proximity of specific areas such as the front door of your location, near a specific department, or maybe near a specific product or product set.  As a mobile device picks up the signal from a given beacon you might choose to interact with that device as it enters the beacons range, after the device has remained in range for a given period, or when the device leaves range.  A very simple, but typical interaction might be when a beacon is placed at the front door of your retail location and the customer's device picks up the signal you might send them a push notification welcoming them back to the store.  Extending this scenario, instead of simply welcoming them, you might additionally take them into your mobile application when they click on the push notification and present to them content such as offers or advertisements.  So it might look like this:  

 

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Types of beacons

There are several categories or types of beacons available and choosing the right one for your situation is critical.  You need to consider what types of interactions you want to have with consumers, the physical environment, what the make-up of your customer base is, and the maintenance requirements needed to name just a few.  Additionally, you need to consider how your using the beacon itself as that will impact the power requirements greatly.  For example, the more often you configure your beacon to send out it's signal (advertising interval), or how broadly to send out that signal (transmit power), and the amount of data being transmitted, the higher the power consumption requirements will be.  These considerations and more are outlined below in the deployment considerations section of this article.    

Battery operated

Many of the most popular beacons in the market today are powered by batteries.  The big benefit of battery operated beacons is the ability to place them where ever you like without the need for an adjacent power supply.  The battery life for these beacons today varies wildly and typically ranges from 1 year to 10 years depending upon the configuration of that beacon.  Beacon vendors either support traditional batteries (such as AA) or coin cell batteries.  For additional considerations around power consumption, see the deployment considerations section below.  

USB operated 

USB powered beacons provide the benefit of no real maintenance requirements since there is no battery to replace.  The downside of these of course is that you are limited on your placement of the beacons to an area with a USB and/or traditional A/C power supply.  However in the case where you have an available power supply, and even those that might not be considered 'traditional' such as a digital display with a USB port, they are a great option. However you must consider how they are getting their power too - for example, if you plug the beacon into a digital display, however for 5 hours a day that display is turned off, the beacon will be off too.  

Other

Another emerging deployment option for beacons is by embedding the beacon functionality directly into LED lighting.  This provides several substantial benefits in that the beacon has a permanent power supply and when combined with other technology present on the LEDs such as Visible Light Communication and/or inertial device sensors, you can tailor the interactions with consumers and even get down to a much more granular level of visibility that beacons by themselves don't provide.  This option might be very appealing if your location(s) need to upgrade to LED lighting already, however may be less appealing if you have already made that transition.  Additional information about GE's solution can be found here.  

Beacon Standards

iBeacon

iBeacon is Apple's implementation of BLE to provide interaction between beacons and mobile devices.  It was introduced in 2015 with IOS 7.  When a beacon broadcasts in iBeacon mode it provides an advertising packet containing the following four main components:  

  • Universal Unique Identifier (UUID) - The UUID contains 32 hexadecimal digits split into 5 groups.  The UUID is used to categorize or organize your beacons.
  • Major - This is a 2 byte string used to identify a smaller subset of beacons within a larger group (UUID)
  • Minor - This is a 2 byte string used to identify individual beacons
  • Tx Power - This is used to determine the proximity in which the beacon can broadcast

More details on the organization of iBeacons:  

Apple provides a great example of how you should think about them. Imagine a chain of retail stores (defined by UUID) that deploys beacons in three cities (defined by major): San Francisco, Paris, and London. It would look like this:

Store location San Francisco Paris London
UUID D9B9EC1F-3925-43D0-80A9-1E39D4CEA95C
Major 1 2 3
Minor Clothing 10 10 10
Housewares 20 20 20
Automotive 30 30 30

 

In this example the UUID identifies the chain of retails stores, the Major identifies the individual stores, and the Minor identifies the departments.  The combination of those 3 points to a specific beacon at a specific location.  

It should be noted, that while iBeacon was created by Apple and originally designed for interaction with IOS devices, it is also compatible with Android 4.3 and above.

For more information about iBeacon specifications, have a look here.  

EddyStone

Eddystone is Google's implementation and is capable of supporting Android, IOS, or any other platform that supports BLE Beacons.  The data it provides to receiving devices is quite different than iBeacons and includes the following: 

  • Eddystone-URL: contains a single field: URL. The size of the field depends on the length of the URL.
  • Eddystone-UID: Eddystone-UID contains an identifier of the beacon.
  • Eddystone-TLM (telemetry packet): Eddystone-TLM packet is designed to be broadcast by the beacon alongside the “data” (i.e., UID and/or URL) for the purposes of fleet management.
  • Eddystone-EID: A time-varying beacon frame that can be resolved to a stable identifier by a linked resolver, such as Proximity Beacon API.The main purpose of Eddystone-EID is to make beacons and proximity technology more secure

For more information on the EddyStone spec, have a look here.  

AltBeacon

Altbeacon is Radius Network's open implementation of the Bluetooth 4.0 specification and is intended to be able to interact with any beacon and theoretically allows for the usage of vender-specific features.  AltBeacon advertisements are encapsulated as the payload of a non connectable undirected advertising PDU(ADV_NONCONN_IND) as defined in Bluetooth Specification Version 4.2, Volume 6, Part B, Section 2.3 Advertising Channel PDU.  

The AltBeacon advertisement is made up of a 1-byte length field, 1-byte type field and two-byte company identifier, as prescribed by the Manufacturer Specific Advertising Data structure format, followed by 24 additional bytes containing the beacon advertisement data.  For more information on the AltBeacon standard - have a look here.  

Cases in which you might want to consider using beacons

Beacons, like any technology do support certain types of use cases, and quite frankly doesn't suit others very well.  The key in determining if beacons are the right solution for you is to first determine how/why you want to interact with consumers to begin with.  Remember beacons don't share content, they don't communicate with your consumer, they simply put out a signal saying "Here I am!".  Beacons are great for finite location and interaction with your consumers in a location that you know they will walk or dwell in, beacons are not the right solution to determine the general geographic location of your consumer.  Additionally, beacons by themselves are not designed to provide you details on the consumer's orientation, or direction or anything like that, they just send out that signal, and then your APP utilizes that signal to determine your consumer is in the area of that beacon.  

Really the reasons to deploy beacons boils down to two basic concepts or needs: 

1) Consumer identification

In this example, you might not actually want/need to interact with your consumer at all, your simply trying to learn about how your consumers are behaving.  What time of day are they at the location? How many times do they visit?  How long do they stay in the store? Which product areas do they spend time in?  Beacons can support this type of insight very easily.  

Use case example:  You install a beacon at the front door of your retail location and one at the POS and/or exit of the retail location.  Now, assuming you have a Mobile APP that is 'listening' for the beacon signals, and the consumer has Bluetooth enabled, you would be able to determine how long that consumer spent in the retail location and even how long they dwell within the range of the beacon itself.  Utilizing the Plexure platform, you could then build analytics to show you what types of consumers spent various amounts of times in the store on given days and during specific day parts during the day.  This could then be used to support not only consumer engagement, but also operational processes related to staffing, maintenance plans, and other types of day to day operations you might consider.  

2) Consumer engagement

As it relates to consumer engagement, beacons are a great means to first identify that your consumer is in a pretty specific location and then be able to utilize a platform such as Plexure to interact and push specific content to that consumer in real-time.  This allows you to reach the consumer with 'just in time' content that is specific to the physical location of that beacon.  For example, because you have placed a beacon at the entrance of your retail location, you can recognize when a consumer with your mobile APP enters the store and send the a 'Welcome Back!" type of message, whereas when they arrive in the 'women's clothing' section, you might determine that you want to send them content related to a item on sale in that section, or better yet, an item that you know that consumer has shown interest in.  Additionally, you can use a beacon in conjunction with other technology, such as a digital display, kiosk, or digital menu board to change the content on that device based upon a consumers proximity to that device.  

Use case example:  You install a beacon near the POS check-out area to help you measure queue depth or the time it takes to check out consumers.  Your mobile APP recognizes that a 'high value' consumer has entered that proximity and has 'lingered' for more than 4 minutes which would imply that he/she are waiting in line.  This opens a number of possibilities on how to resolve, but the simplest one might simply be to send them a push notification offering them the ability to go right to the 'customer service' desk and check-out immediately.  

Cases in which beacons might not be the right choice

Beacons can solve many use cases and they excel in the areas of consumer identification, way finding, 'just-in-time' interaction, etc, however they are not designed to address some key needs you might have.  The following is a partial list of use cases that beacons are likely not appropriate for.  

  • Near by location - if you need is to identify consumers that are in the general geographic area of your location, in the range of 50M and greater, beacons are not best suited for that, more traditional geo location would be much better suited for that need.
  • Consumer orientation - if your goal is to determine which direction your consumer is facing, beacons cannot help with that, as the mobile device simply reads the signal from the beacon and cannot associate any directional orientation based upon that.
  • Extreme granularity  - if you need to identify a consumer's location down to a level less than about 2M, beacons probably don't offer the type of consistency you would need to be able to rely upon the results
  • Movement within the 'zone' - while you can, thru some pretty complex logic determine and measure the strength of the signal as it changes when a consumer stays within a given beacons radius, a much more reliable and simplier way to measure where a consumer is moving within a relatively small area is likely to have multiple beacons deployed.

Implementing the Plexure SDK for beacon interaction on IOS and Android

For specific guidance on implementation considerations within our SDK for IOS and Android, have a look at the Beacons Monitoring section of our SDK documentation.  

Deployment considerations

Considerations when selecting a beacon and beacon provider

Picking the right beacon and beacon provider is key to your potential deployment.  While most beacons provide similar functionality in similar ways, the 'devil is in the details'.  Immediate costs should of course be a consideration, however TCO and functionality will likely provide more weight in your final decision. While the basic functionality of most beacons is very similar, there are aspects that vary from beacon to beacon and therefore you should consider certain capabilities when making your decision:

  • Quality - The fact is that beacons are unlike much of the technology that we traditionally deploy in that from a practical standpoint they are disposable.  In the event that a beacon stops functioning, that beacon will be replaced, not repaired.  Therefore you need to consider the Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) and ask the prospective vendors what they have seen in real world deployments.  Exceptions always occur, but MTBF is typically a good measure to gauge just how long those beacons your buying should last in the field.
  • Ease of configuration and management- Now if you only plan to deploy 5-10 beacons in total, configuration is likely not a major concern, however if you plan to deploy a substantial number of beacons, the ability to quickly configure those beacons will be key.  Does the vendor provide a mobile APP for ranging and testing the beacons when installing?  Does the vendor provide an on-line portal to view and manage your beacons?  Does that portal allow you to represent or 'see' exactly where those beacons are placed?  Some vendors offer the ability to overlay your location schematics with beacon placement and then show the radius of each beacons coverage with signal strength information as well as other relevant telemetry- we have found this very useful when helping customers roll out their beacons.  Another key capability here is the ability to monitor and track battery levels across all your beacons.  You don't want to guess nor do you want to have to utilize a close proximity mobile APP to measure this, you want to be able to do it centrally via a portal.
  • Accuracy and Sensitivity - How small and large of a radius can you create?  How often can you send out the signal?
  • Placement limitations - You need the flexibility to be able to place the beacons at the location that will have the biggest impact for your use case, make sure the beacon you select doesn't have any limits on where you can place it.  Additionally, there may be cases where you need to be able to place beacons in an overlapping configuration, where the radius's intersect - make sure the beacon doesn't have any limits in this regard.  
  • Battery Life - This is a big one and will likely be one of the most significant maintenance aspects involved with your beacon deployment.  The signal strength and advertising interval will be key to determining just how long the batteries will last.  If you have a large radius for example, that will consume more power than a smaller or 'tighter' radius.  Similarly if you expect that consumers will be moving through that 'zone' quickly, you might need to increase the advertising interval and that will also greatly impact the battery life. Generally if you expect that consumers will dwell or walk slowly through a given beacon radius (for example in a product area that isn't considered a 'pass-thru'), you want the frequency set as high as possible to maximize that battery life and alternatively, if you expect consumers will get through that zone quickly, you will need to lower that time between signals (such as at the front door of your location)
  • Firmware Updates - Another key consideration is how often you need firmware updates and how it is that you go about getting those out to the field.  Do you need to use a mobile APP to pass the firmware? Can you use the centralized portal?  Again, this will depend on just how many locations and beacons you deploy, however it could be a substantial maintenance requirement if updates are sent out frequently. 
  • Costs - This certainly shouldn't be the biggest consideration in most cases, however you do need to consider your longer term deployment plans.  Typically vendors charge a one time price for the hardware itself and then may offer a maintenance and support plan in addition to that or maybe even a managed service.  You should consider how these play together, does the maintenance and support plan include their online management functions? Licensing?  Is it done by location or by beacon?  Are you doing a staggered roll out starting with a few stores and then going nationwide? Does the per unit or maintenance pricing take that into account?  Does the maintenance and support plan include replacement of defective beacons?
  • Maintenance Plans (installation and battery replacement) - Maintenance plans differ from maintenance and support plans typically in that they address the installation, battery maintenance, and movement requirements of your beacons, they are not typically intended to address defects or support questions/needs.  This may or may not be needed in your situation, as you might choose to your own IT or maintenance staff to do this work, but if not, you should see what options are available here since again, depending on how many beacons you deploy, this could be a substantial cost and effort.  Depending on your business and its' regional or global coverage you might need to ask if they have a regionally local partner that can do this as it would likely be much more cost effective than having to fly staff around to do this maintenance.

Environmental (placement) considerations

When planning your deployment the single most important consideration is where and how you place the beacons.  The correct placement of your beacon(s) to allow interaction with a specific type of consumer is absolutely crucial to the success or failure of your program.  It goes well beyond the beacon itself and in this section we will discuss some of the most significant issues that you will need to consider: 

  • Connectivity - An extremely important factor and one many retailers forget about is that if you want to engage with the consumers in the store, whether via beacons or other location based technology, you must have reliable connectivity for the consumers' mobile devices.  In the case of beacons, even if they don't have data connectivity/internet connectivity their mobile device will be able to pick up the beacon's signal, however if they have no connectivity, that data won't be able to be transferred back to a back-end system and that back-end system cannot communicate with the consumer whether that's via a push notification or in app content. Now this can be accomplished with WiFi in the event 2g/3g/4g isn't available, however that requires users to connect to the WiFi and in many cases that includes some level of authentication. So you will need to test out this connectivity in your locations to see just how reliable it is, or if other solutions need to be implemented.  Make sure that you test both IOS and Android, as in some cases they behave very differently.  
  • Expected Consumer behavior - When you place your beacon(s) you must take into account how you expect your consumers to behave or move in that specific area.  Will they be moving fast through the area?  Will they be slowly roaming around looking at a product? Is the area near an 'open air area' that might be affected by weather conditions?  Is it located in an area where consumers may tend to queue up (like a check-out)?  This matters because all of these questions will impact how it is you configure you beacon, the radius and the advertising interval will both likely have to be changed to accomodate these different behaviors.  For example, if your placing a beacon at the front door of your location, and there isn't a specific reason for consumers to slow down (for example to pick up a shopping cart), it's likely they will be moving quite quickly through that area.  In this case you might want to configure the beacon's radius quite wide to make sure you welcome message is sent to them as the are passing through that door.  However if you don't need them to get the message immediatley, you might decrease that radius but increase the advertising interval to ensure they pick up the beacon signal, but they may not get the welcome message until they have passed through the entrance area and have actually arrived in the shopping area.  Alternatively, determine which consumers are in a very specific location of the store for a particular length of time, say the check-out line, you might make that radius much smaller and increase the advertisement intervale to capture consumers that have been standing in line for more than 3 minutes.  These are two simple examples, but the philosophy holds true across any placement of beacons. 
  • Your goal for that specific beacon - Another important factor is how it is that you want to engage consumers that enter a specific beacon zone.  Do you want to simply send them a push notification? Do you want to direct them to a product or specific area of the store?  Do you want to remind them to redeem an offer?  While beacons certainly can support different types of interactions with various consumers, some will really have a specific purpose.  For example a beacon at the entrance of your location will likely be to support push notification that perhaps welcome a consumer back to the store, but wouldn't necessarily be well suited to remind the swipe their loyalty card at check out (since they have just arrived).  Similarly if your trying to direct a customer to a specific product, you need to make sure the beacon is placed in a location that provides sufficient time to recognize that the consumer has entered that zone and yet send them the information about the product before they actually pass by it.  
  • Product/Store redesigns - Another component to consider when installing is what the maintenance might be as it relates to products moving or in more extreme cases the store periodically being re-designed.  For example, if you have placed a beacon in the men's clothing section and want to notify male consumers as they approach of specials in that area, but next month your moving the men's section to where the young adults section was, you will need to update your beacon configuration both in the Plexure platform as well as any portal that the beacon provider has made available to keep an accurate track of which beacons align with which product sets.  This can be mitigated of course by moving your beacons with the section, however in that case you would still want to update any schematics you might have on the beacon provider's portal only.  
  • Physical Objects - One of the challenges with beacons is the fact that some objects and/or materials can shield or interfere with the signal itself.  Generally objects made of wood, concrete, and/or metal can impact this.  In our experience metal seems to consistently cause issues more than the others, however that will vary from location to location.  To avoid this, best placement of beacons, when possible, is approximately 2.5-4 meters above the ground with line-of-sight view of the radius you want to use for coverage of that beacon.  The key here is when installing to test to quality and strength of the signal around the entire radius of the expected range.
  • Maintenance considerations - Maintenance is a issue you will have to consider throughout the lifetime of your project/program.  When placing your beacons you will need to consider whether or not the location you have placed the beacon is movable and how accessible it is when you need to swap out the batteries.  
  • Other Electronics - While beacons won't interfere with other signal based electronics, if the beacons are installed in a location with a number of WiFi there can be interference (assuming those WiFi networks are using 2.4Ghz which is the same as BLE).  This can be avoided by specifically configuring your WiFI (or other 2.4Ghz based electronics) to use channels 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.  Bluetooth automatically uses Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) to use the remaining channels thereby preventing the interference. 

Different types of retailers and the needs specific to them

Depending on the type of business you are, you will likely have different needs and expectations as it relates to beacons.  For example, a traditional retail clothing store might place beacons across the various departments in hopes of interacting with specific types of consumers in those areas (men, women, VIPs, etc), whereas in a Quick Serve Restaurant you are more likely to use a beacon to welcome consumers and perhaps identify when they are at the drive thru, but it will be a very different experience than a typical retail location.  For very large stores, you might well choose to use the beacons as a tool to help consumers find their way through the store. 

What is your customer base? - do they really use Bluetooth?

Before you embark on deploying beacons (or any other BT enabled technology) you will also want to consider your consumer base and the probability that they have Bluetooth enabled.  Many users have a belief that Bluetooth is a substantial drain of their battery and therefore have it disabled, however in reality on average in today's environment Bluetooth actually only drains the battery by approximately 1-2% over the course of a day.  It is estimated that by 2018 over 90% of the devices globally will be BLE capable.  Estimates vary of course regionally, between 10-50% of consumers have Bluetooth enabled, however on average it is assumed at least 40% do globally.   Some common trends are:  

  • Younger users are significantly more likely to have Bluetooth turned on
  • Users with connected devices are very likely to have Bluetooth on — for example most drivers or those with hands-free headsets
  • North American consumers tend to have some of the higher rates of Bluetooth on while rates go as low as about 15–20% in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Here are some general ideas on how to promote the usage of Bluetooth with your users:  

  • Educate your users during the on-boarding process of the value proposition  - show them what's in it for them
  • Educate your users that turning on Bluetooth on won't impact their overall battery life
  • Reach out to them via Push Notifications and Geo-fencing - When they are near your location, send them a push notification and remind them to turn on their Bluetooth so they can get great deals
  • Reach out to them when they connect to your in-store WiFi - use a banner on the login page
  • Use digital displays and posters in your locations to promote the usage
  • Encourage consumers via your social media & email campaigns 

 

For more information on the deployment, planning, and usage of Beacon and other technologies, just reach out to your Plexure representative so we can show you how a program like this could benefit your business specifically.

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