Mobile Technology

Why beacons aren’t always the answer…

Date Published:

It’s been over a year since we wrote our first blog introducing iBeacons and what they might be used for in the future ( The Low Down on iBeacons and BLE technology). In that year we have witnessed iBeacons take off in an extraordinary way.

We have seen Beacon projects move out of the trial and experimental phases and hit the mainstream. Whether it’s Nivea’s ‘Baby on the Beach’ campaign or the New Museum in New York, simulating the danger of navigating through a minefield. Companies and businesses all over the world have emerged, dedicating themselves completely to iBeacon developments.

There’s no doubt that beacons are an exciting technological advancement that has changed the face of indoor location services and we ourselves are excited to be working on beacon projects. That said however, iBeacons are not without their issues and are certainly not the glorious answer to indoor location that we first thought they might be.

Over the last year we have been fortunate enough to work on several beacon projects and as such we have inevitably encountered problems. As with most things you encounter issues with, we have learnt an incredible amount through having these technical problems -so we thought we would share some of our lessons with you.

Below are a rundown of some of the main issues we have faced. Hopefully knowing some of these potential speed bumps will make your beacon project run more smoothly, or perhaps highlight that beacons maybe aren’t the right technology for your project after all…

Proximity

Many art galleries and museums are looking give out information about a great many things in very close proximity to each other. Take for example a wall with 10 different paintings 1 meter apart; a beacon for each item would result in crossed signals and it would be hard for a user’s phone or tablet to know which beacon to respond to. We’ve had tests where beacons over 4m away were interfering with each other – so having a clear plan, and spending time tweaking and testing your specific installation settings is important.

Infrastructure

A large building will inevitably require a large amount of beacons. Installing these beacons is no mean feat. Not only do they have to be near the object you wish to send out information about, they also have to be hidden/inaccessible from the public but accessible by the staff. In addition to this they have to be facing the right way and placed just so, so that signals are not crossed with another ibeacon. There is no formula to follow, so each building will need a carefully mapped out infrastructure. For example; we have found that the signal of beacons placed near lift shafts can be detected on the floors above and below.It also depends on the materials used to construct the areas of the building. For example reinforced concrete will not let any signal through, whereas a plasterboard wall could leak. It all depends on the specifics of the building and knowing building specifics takes time to gather information and experiment with power settings, location etc.

Maintenance

With anything that requires multiple installations, beacons will need maintenance. Various reports suggest beacon batteries can last anywhere between a few months to five years depending on what settings they are being used on. However, at some point the batteries will need to be changed. And that’s not always the easiest task…

In addition to keeping an eye on the batteries, the odds are at some point they will fall down, get stolen or simply stop working and need to be replaced. This means having trained staff on hand to carry out these works which in turn means added maintenance cost. Which leads us to…

Funding

From our experience, many of the companies and businesses that wish to install beacons are doing so using project funding. This means there is a set amount of money in the pot and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Therefore the associated cost with maintaining the beacons usually aren’t practical or even an option.

Experience

Depending on the experience you’re looking to create will depend on how suitable ibeacons are. If you’re looking to create a tour, guide or story-led experience that relies on one beacon leading you to the next, then you may encounter problems. If one beacon goes missing or its battery dies, the whole trail is then effected.

Security

Spoofing is when a malicious developer copies the IDs of the beacons to use them in their own apps, or to confuse the beacon owners app. There are ways to solve this by automatically changing the IDs of the beacons, but it means that:
1. The client app needs an internet connection to download the latest beacon list.
2. You need maintenance infrastructure to update the beacons. Some beacon suppliers manage maintenance better than others. For example; at the moment Estimotes require a maintainer to walk around and connect to each beacon to update it. Whereas with Kontakt you can purchase cloud connected beacons to manage infrastructure wirelessly

Reliability

Leading on from the above point, beacons are generally not that reliable. Even if your whole system is working, no batteries are dead and everything is programmed correctly – something as simple as having your phone in your left pocket instead of your right could mean a signal doesn’t get picked up. You know that weird spot in your house where you can’t get any phone signal? Beacons can be just as fickle. A test run in an empty gallery won’t yield the same result in a gallery full of people for example.

Conclusion

Despite being available for a couple of years now, beacons are still very new technology and we’re sure in years to come the hardware and software speedbumps will have been ironed out. However, it’s important to remember that there are issues with this tech.

If you’re embarking on an beacon project have just read this list and despaired, please dont! Provided you are working with a good team who understands the technology and it’s limitations, you’ll be able to produce something fantastic.

If you would like to speak to Calvium about beacon development, please contact us at hello@calvium.com