Using BLE Beacons for visitor navigation in art gallery

Trying to connect technology with the art world is something very attractive for me. The idea of expand the artistic expression by using new tools in different and new ways is in my opinion the peak of the creative process.

When facing the challenge of doing this in the exhibit “Fashioning the Future” hosted in the IDB art gallery, we had several and very crazy ideas. The deadline was very short, and we needed to have the app ready and available in the Apple and Google store in 3 weeks.

Bluetooth beacons seems for me a natural fit, because we could use them to help the visitors have an interactive experience.

Concept

The concept was simple, the visitor will download an app that will use the Bluetooth beacons placed in each piece of art to show contextual information about the piece and the artist. In addition the app will be playing different sounds, created exclusively for this exhibit by a sound artist, for each piece adjusting the volumen of the sounds based on the distance to the piece (the closer to the piece the higher the volumen of that sound).

We used Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, since they only transmit the signal in regular intervals, saving energy and prolonging the life of the devices. For the hardware we selected the Estimote beacons (https://estimote.com/) because they are very popular and have several models that we wanted to use.


BLE Models

The models that we tried are:

From left to right Stickers, Proximity and Location beacons
  • Stickers beacons

Very small beacons that can be stick anywhere. The major problem with this model is the signal is not very strong and the battery is not replaceable

  • Proximity beacons

A little bit larger and bulkier, however the signal strength and consistency improves significantly.

  • Location beacons

Similar in size to the Proximity beacons, but the way these ones works is different. You need to place them in different corners of the room (3 minimum) and using a Estimote SDK you can triangulate the position of the phone in the room.

For simplicity we decided to use the Proximity beacons

Once the beacons are broadcasting, the app will received the payload information with the art detail. The payload can be in different formats and that is configurable in the beacons, the formats/protocol are:

  • iBeacon: Apple protocol
  • Eddystone: Google protocol
  • Estimote: Estimote protocol

We ended up using the Eddystone protocol because we found more documentations and examples online.

Calculating the distance

The RSSI indicated the strength of te signal in decibels. We tried to calculate the distance using this information but the signal was very inconsistent based on variable factors, for example how you hold your phone in your hand. So we decided to simplify and considere the beacons with the greatest RSSI the closest one. We also created a custom formula to get the volumen level based on the RSSI, this formula required from us to test it in the location and adjusting based on the sound artist desires.

Finally

The app was downloaded 418 times ( 76% iOS / 24% Android) why visitor who enjoyed being part of the exhibit why interactive through the app.

This project help us to learn about BLE technology, but ultimately how technology and art can be a great match.