google maps

Search giant Google has launched its own open source beacon format called Eddystone, that enables BLE (Bluetooth low energy) devices to act as markers that provide contextual information in the real world.

A beacon is essentially a low energy Bluetooth device that can broadcast its identity to other Bluetooth electronic devices like smartphones and tablets. These beacons can then be installed at points of interest, like bus stops, or a vending machines, to distribute relevant information like bus timings or inventory available etc. Previously, such location markers used GPS to identify their location but BLE has certain advantages like reduced battery consumption and location precision down to a few centimeters over older GPS based systems.

Google’s platform Eddystone will support multiple frame types for different use cases, as well as versioning of software to make updates easier. The platform is cross-compatible with Android, iOS and other devices that support BLE beacons, so pretty much any modern device with Bluetooth should be able to communicate with it. Interestingly, Google has also made this platform open source and its source code is freely available via GitHub.

To address privacy concerns, Google mentions that Eddystone will come with a feature called Ephemeral Identifiers (EIDs) which change frequently and can only be decoded by authorized clients. According to the company, this technology can be used by users to find their luggage at airports, or to find their lost keys. However, the company is yet to publish the technical specifications for this technology.

Beacon APIs: Google has launched two APIs for its Eddystone platform. The Nearby API for iOS and Android lets developers create apps that can find and communicate with nearby devices and beacons, such as at an exhibit in a museum. The Proximity Beacon API lets developers find the the semantic location, i.e the lat/long of the place and other related data saved in the cloud. This API will also be used in other existing location APIs like the future versions of its Places API.

As of now, Google has partnered with various manufacturers including Bkon, Bluevision, Estimote, Signal 360 and Radius Networks to build Eddystone compliant beacons. Additionally, the company mentions that existing BLE beacons can be made compliant with Eddystone via a firmware update. As a pilot, Google Maps launched a beacon based transit notification system in Portland (US) earlier this year. This enabled users at the station get access to real time transit data and schedules on their phones.

Large scale deployment: Google mentions that eventually, when beacons are deployed at scale in places like stadiums and stations, installation of new devices and maintenance of existing ones can get difficult. As a solution, devices that implement Eddystone’s telemetry frame in combination with Proximity Beacon’s diagnostic endpoint, will be able to monitor battery health and displacement: the most common problems associated with beacon hardware.

iBeacon: Google’s competitor Apple, has had something similar in its kitty for a long time now. The company had released its iBeacon protocol at the Apple WWDC in 2013, which also uses Bluetooth low energy proximity sensing to transmit data such as location etc. However, Apple’s offering only works with Apple devices, whereas Google’s product works across platforms.

MediaNama’s take: Beacons are simply taking the idea of NFC a step further. NFC tags can similarly store data and transfer them to a device, and have the advantage of not requiring power. However, Bluetooth beacons are much more useful as they can beam data over greater distances and can connect with any Bluetooth enabled device. These beacons can also be as powerful as they need to be, from simple coin sized ‘keychain’ beacons that can locate keys, to more powerful beacons that can serve up menus and take orders at a restaurant.

Overall, beacons signal another step toward a more connected world. For example, a security camera could run its footage through an algorithm to approximate a user’s age, sex etc., and beam up relevant location based advertisements. Similarly, a beacon interaction could direct the user to their correct seats in a theatre, provide store inventories, information at landmarks, or even information about specific homes in larger societies.

However, as the number of IoT devices grow, privacy will increasingly become an issue. These devices collect, store and/or transmit data to and from consumers, which could be hacked or used with malicious intent. As Medianama had pointed out earlier, we give our data away online every day – to apps, search engines, social networks, email newsletters and media companies, e-commerce firms, and even if some of them don’t follow guidelines, or keep changing their privacy policies. This problem will only get worse as IoT devices gain ubiquity.

Also read:

Interoperability, user experience key for the Internet of Things – Notes from MWC15

Google developing new Android OS for Internet of Things: report