The Basics of Beacons

If you’ve ever asked yourself “what the hell are those ‘beacons’ everyone keeps talking about?” you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve actually never heard of them before, but now have a burning need to know, you’re in luck as well. In this article, I want to tell you what beacons are and how you might use them. And don’t worry, you don’t really have to be tech-savvy to understand what I’m going on about.

via Flickr, user

So let’s start at the very basics. Beacons are small Bluetooth devices that send a signal to your smartphone or tablet saying, “hey, I’m here!” They are small transmitters which consist of a tiny microchip, a battery and a (usually) plastic casing. Depending on the manufacturer, you can get the casing in multiple colors and shapes which from barely noticeable to flashy and conspicuous. You’ll find some examples further down. Due to their relative small size, they can be easily hidden from the eyes of customers, visitors etc. if desired (you know, to protect them against theft or so as not to spoil a beautiful design). Now, there are even Bluetooth stickers, which you can place and hide even more easily, but which essentially do the same thing as beacons.

On the basis of the signal transmitted by the beacons (or stickers), your smartphone can orientate itself and communicate with them. Thus, beacons can ideally be used for navigation and location-based exchange of information. Naturally, you might ask, “But why do I need beacons to navigate, when I have GPS!?” And yes, that’s correct, but GPS only works outdoors. Inside (like, in large shopping centers, exhibition halls, train stations, underground transportation, what have you), it won’t be much use to you. So that’s where Bluetooth beacons can be a huge help – and, of course, they can do far more than that.

And why does it have to be Bluetooth?

For the reasons I’ve just explained, GPS is out as an alternative. And we don’t only want to navigate, but instead use them to exchange information, to put it simply (and yes, I will elaborate in a minute). So your next question might be why Bluetooth is better than, say, NFC. That’s also easily answered, because NFC stands for Near Field Communication, so the answer is in the name, really. NFC has a much smaller range than Bluetooth beacons, for which you can additionally customize the desired range. That means, you can decide how close someone has to get to your beacon for it to reveal its information.

Ok, I’ll give you a less abstract example. Say you want to get some information (phone numbers, pictures, notes, …) from one smartphone to another via NFC, you’ll always have to hold the two devices very close together. And I’m not saying that it can’t make sense for some sorts of info to require close proximity to the transmitter. In fact, you can set a beacon’s proximity to only a few centimeters, but you can also make them share their information with someone standing a few meters from it.

Another advantage is that they use the so-called Bluetooth Low Energy Standard (BLE), which means they are less of a drain on their own and also your smartphone’s battery than NFC or GPS.


Various beacons by estimote,, xy and pixie (from left to right)

So what are Beacons good for?

Well, a lot of things, really. I’ll give you only a few examples and leave it to your creativity to come up with more. An industry which could hugely benefit from beacons is retail. And easier navigation through large shops or shopping centers is only a small part of it. You could, for example, also make a digital shopping list before going to the store and have the beacons guide you to the individual products once there.

And as soon as you come near a certain beacon, pass multiple beacons in a certain order or the same beacon multiple times, it could trigger an event (i.e. generate a voucher or some other kind of special offer). Therefore, a beacon could ask you to download a digital bonus card, give you a discount, or send you a code which you can exchange for a physical goodie of some sort.

Or, alternatively, if you’re more into culture and less into shopping, beacons would work similarly in a museum. You could essentially create your own individual beacon-guided tour where you only get the info you are interested in.

That’s it?

No, because another important area for beacons are tradeshows. Also here, navigation is a huge plus, but not their only use. A beacon placed near the entrance of an exhibition hall could send a friendly greeting to the visitors, or it could tell them where to find the best booths, offers, food, … whatever, really.

Or maybe you’re interested in a certain booth, but the whole staff there is already helping out someone else. Instead of waiting or walking away disappointed, you could simply ‘ask’ a beacon to tell you what you want to know and be on your way. There really is a lot you can do there, which is why I’ve put together ’10 reasons why beacons and trade shows are made for each other’ here.

Well, and then entertainment is also necessary sometimes – and lo and behold, beacons can help you out there as well. For the young visitors at trade shows or shopping centers (who might not always show the same level of interest in things as you), beacons could trigger mini-games to keep them happy. But also adults who need a break , or have to wait somewhere without anything interesting reading material, beacons can help pass their time with applications like zcircle.

And since we’re talking about parents and children already, I can think of one other use. Although I’d just like to show you the following video without passing any judgement whatsoever. I’ll let you decide whether that’s an idea worth developing.

And how can I benefit from that?

Easily, because I think here is where it gets really interesting! In addition to the countless advantages for users which I’ve already mentioned, also the businesses who use them can benefit hugely. Beacons don’t only allow you to direct visitor traffic (to certain products and offers or simply interesting things), you can track an analyze it as well with the help of Google Analytics and the like. Because what beacons are also really good at is gathering information – don’t worry, everything remains nice and anonymous. But it gives you an insight into which products, booths and areas of interest are most popular and highly frequented. Or maybe you find out that these things change at certain times of the day.

With things like the zcircle app or any other initiatives which give visitors certain advantages, beacons can also help to increase the number of visitors or the time they spend at the cool place with all the beacons, be it a bar, a shop, an exhibition hall or a museum.

So, what’s the catch?

Does there always have to be a catch? Well, ok – there is a very tiny catch here, if you can even call it that. Of course, the whole beacon thing doesn’t just work like magic without the users having to do anything special. You do always need an app. Ideally, the one that knows how to interact with the very beacons you need at a certain point in time.

To put it simply, when you want to be guided through a large exhibition center, you’ll probably need to download the official trade show app. And when you’re inside and see a booth promising a beacon containing a special offer, you might need to install an additional app for that.

So, that’s the catch. But luckily, apps are removable. And as an exchange for a lot of time saved, not getting lost, being entertained and maybe having saved a few bucks in the process, I think it’s an acceptable effort. Don’t you?