How Apple's iBeacon Location Sensing Tech Works

Technology already in many iPhones whether you realize it or not.

iBeacon

iBeacon is an Apple specification that extends location services in iOS to include Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices, specifically a broadcasting BLE radio called a beacon. It has the potential to usher in a new level of interactivity for the mobile user experience. Here’s how it works.

In your iPhone, iOS alerts apps when you come in range of a broadcasting iBeacon. The app can monitor location, estimate your distance to the beacon, and define the location based on the BLE signal instead of on GPS. iBeacon is already starting to change the mobile user experience. Here’s how it works.

(Read the main story: Apple's iBeacon turns location sensing inside out.)

iBeacon
Apple

On top of the BLE protocol stack, Apple created first what it calls Core Bluetooth, a set of classes that lets iOS apps easily call the underlying BLE functions.

Related: Apple’s Core Bluetooth Programming Guide

iBeacon
Estimote

The actual iBeacon also incorporates a BLE radio, usually powered by a some kind of battery, and mounted (sometimes with an adhesive backing) on a doorway, wall, or aisle. The iBeacon broadcasts a Bluetooth signal in the 2.4-Ghz band within a preset range. Conventional Bluetooth reaches about 30 feet, but with BLE can go over 200 (the spec doesn’t impose a limit). Shown: an exploded view of an iBeacon from Estimote.

iBeacon
SonicNotify

Another group of beacons, from SonicNotify, showing the variety of form factors, sizes, and housings for beacons.

iBeacon
Apple

All iPhones from iPhone 4S onwards support Bluetooth 4.0. Any iOS device with that radio and iOS 7 – and with both Location Services and Notifications turned on -- can sense an iBeacon broadcast and respond. Typically, iBeacons greet users with an invitation to download an app or, if you have their app already, some other content such as a sales items, a daily special, coupon, etc. The user has to explicitly accept the invitation.

iBeacon
Apple

These screenshots show how Apple’s iBeacons, in its own retail stores, invite users to enable iBeacon notifications. Once enabled, the central screen appears, a kind of dashboard to the store’s offers, help, and reminders. Based on your Apple ID and associated credit cards, you can complete a purchase with your iPhone.

iBeacon
Estimote

This diagram shows, for a retail setting, the range of content and capabilities that iBeacon’s location services can enable.

iBeacon
Estimote

As this diagram shows, the iBeacon has minimal communication with the iPhone: it’s a kind of digital tripwire when your iPhone’s BLE radio comes within range. IBeacon can locate you, and alert you to the fact that there are notifications that may be of interest to you. But the actual content, including apps, is downloaded to the phone from servers in a private or public cloud, via Wi-Fi or cellular.

NFL

For SuperBowl week, the NFL sprinkled iBeacons along “SuperBowl Boulevard” a stretch of Broadway near Times Square, and updated its “N.F.L. Mobile” iOS app. The beacons popped up different notifications as you walked among the events, exhibits, and activities. Most iBeacon deployments right now are experiments to discover how the marriage of your identity and your location can be used in evolving the mobile user experience.