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BKON transponder with Android-based smart phone
BKON transponder with Android-based smart phone

Discover Omaha Beacons - Turning Your Phone Into a Tour Guide

Apple's iBeacons introduced a way to interact with your smart phone using tiny Bluetooth LE transponders, opening the door to not only providing passersby with contextual information, but also the flood gates to a lot of unwanted intrusion. Now a new BLE protocol created by Google called Eddystone promises to change the way you shop and learn: it's call the Physical Web.

Have you seen those QR code symbols, the funny little squares that look like a maze? The idea was to make it 'easy' for companies to get smart phone users to interact with their websites. But to do that, you had to download an app that let your camera phone take a picture of the code. The app would than read the embedded code and then take some kind of action, usually linking to a web page.

How many times have you done that?

Then a couple years ago, Apple introduced iBeacon. They used Bluetooth to create a Low Energy (LE) protocol that would, like an airplane transponder, send out a pulsed code every 100 milliseconds. That pulse, some 31 bytes-long, contained the identity of the "beacon". Again, with the appropriate app on your phone, coming within a few meters of the device would trigger some action on the phone. It could set the phone to vibrating or launch the application, which could be, for example, a sales coupon good on some product in a nearby business establishment.

The problem with that approach is what happens when you walk within range of lots of beacons, which are cheap to make and sell? Conceivably and annoyingly, your phone would be vibrating constantly, but only if you had a particular business' app on your phone. Maybe if you frequented Starbucks, you'd bother to install the app, otherwise iBeacons weren't much of an advance over QR codes.

Then last summer, Google introduced its own protocol called Eddystone, presumably named for the famous lighthouse off the coast of England. Google took the same Bluetooth LE technology and tweaked its pulsed code so that it could transmit more than just its major and minor code segments. More importantly, as Google's Eddystone evangelist, Scott Jenson, notes in his various talks, Eddystone is non-intrusive. It doesn't set your phone buzzing in your pocket or purse when you walk within range of a beacon, most of which have an effective transmitting radius out to about 50-70 meters (160-230 ft).

Instead, you can let your phone scan for any nearby beacons, which are made by a number of different firms. The video below, produced by BKON, one of those manufacturers, highlights what is being called the Physical Web, which use beacons to make information available on a more contextual basis.

The key difference between Apple's iBeacon and Google's Eddystone protocol is that the latter is designed to be "App-free". In theory, you won't need a separate app to scan for nearby beacons. Newer versions of Google Chrome already support it, though curiously for iOS, but not Android, yet. Other browsers, including Firefox and Opera are starting to integrate it; and there are separate, mini-Physical Web browsers available for both iOS and Android. Of course, like any app, these you have to download, but future mobile operating systems will likely have it embedded so no separate apps will be needed.

Seeing the potential for this, Quikbyke has begun experimenting with the technology in the last few days using a BKON-made beacon, which is visible in the photo above. The Android-based smart phone running the PhysWeb browser automatically detected its URL-embedded signal and displayed information and a link to the Quikbyke website. So, again in theory, someone within range and is scanning for local beacons, would see this link on their phone. Clicking it, of course, would take them to the website, for example.

Or… and this is where I think the real fun begins… we could set out beacons around the community that can be used to create e-biking tour of the city. Over the last couple weeks, I've been boning up on the history of Omaha, my hometown. I've identified ten locations where I would like to place beacons, and using Google Maps, I created the prototype for just such a beacon-based tour. All of these are within a three-mile radius of our downtown riverfront, which is were much of our early history took place. We don't have the beacons installed yet. There are still issues to be resolved like why my iPad2 running iOS 9.2 doesn't see the beacon. I am working with BKON in Tennessee on the problem, but it clearly does work on a relatively new Android-based phone; and we still need to see the protocol incorporated more widely and seamlessly into future phones so that it is truly 'App-free.'

But I have to say that I am excited about the possibilities and hope that by the time we roll out our prototype Quikbyke Q•pod later this Spring, we'll also have our Discover Omaha beacons in place.

Posted By: Bill Moore [19-Jan-2016]