iBeacons: Setup and Installation

Getting started

NOTE: This article is a continuation of another. Click the Medium article link below to start from the beginning.
Making an iBeacon app

Obviously for an iBeacon app to work you need iBeacons. There are a few different companies selling beacons. The most notable are Sensorberg, Kontakt.io, Gelo, and Estimote. One thing to look for when shopping around is to ensure that the beacons conform to Apple’s iBeacon protocol. The protocol allows iPhones to detect the beacon’s signal. Conforming to this protocol is what differentiates a “Beacon” from and “iBeacon”. There is speculation that Apple will eventually release their own iBeacons, but as of writing there is no set release date.
I ended up going with Estimote for Manifest’s iBeacons. They have two different types to consider depending on your needs:

  • Regular iBeacons that cost $99 for a pack of 3
  • Sticker iBeacons that cost $99 for a pack of 10
NOTE: As of writing, Sticker iBeacons are still in pre-order and have not yet been released.

The sticker package is a much better value, however the battery life of stickers is only estimated at a year. I used Estimote’s regular iBeacons for the Manifest Experience app, since they have an estimated life of 3 years. Battery life is important to consider since some beacons don’t run off of standard AA or AA batteries. Most quality beacons are manufactured with an internal battery pack that can’t be swapped out. Meaning once it’s dead, that beacon is a glorified paperweight.

Setting them up for use

A great metaphor for iBeacons is that they behave just like light houses. They are always broadcasting a signal but aren’t capable of two-way communication. An iBeacon enabled app doesn’t communicate with the beacons. All it does is ask the iPhone to watch for specific iBeacon ID signals and notify the app when it detects a one. Exact distance a user is from a beacon is hard to gauge from within an app. The only piece of information that the app can reliably know is whether the iPhone is currently in range of a beacon or not.
Precise configuration of a beacon’s signal radius is the best way to guarantee your app will know when a user is in a specific spot. There are 3 aspects of the beacon to configure and tweak when setting up an iBeacon at a location:

  • Broadcast Power / Signal Strength
  • Physical location of the iBeacon
  • Broadcast Frequency / Signal Interval

The broadcast frequency setting controls how often the beacon broadcasts it’s signal. Setting the interval between each signal pulse to too low of a value can quickly drain the battery of a beacon. Setting this value to around 800 ms is a good starting point and will go a long way towards prolonging your beacon’s battery life.

Controlling an iBeacon’s Detectable Distance

Configuring broadcast power and the iBeacon’s position in the room is key to controlling how far the bluetooth signal will travel. The level of control you have over signal strength settings will depend on your beacon manufacturer. You may be able to control the beacon’s dBm (Decibel-milliwatts) power directly or only be able to step it down in segments. If you only have limited control over the power you may not be able to affect the distance as precisely as you want. To increase or decrease the signal distance further, the physical location of the beacon will need to be adjusted.
A beacon’s signal has a hard time penetrating walls and people. If a person is standing between your iPhone and an iBeacon the signal will greatly diminish. That fact is important to keep in mind when picking placement for your iBeacon. To maximize the distance a beacons signal can travel you should stick it to a wall at about eye level. To reduce an iBeacon’s detectable distance try putting it lower to the ground, under a table or in a cabinet.

That’s it for this topic. Use one of the 2 Medium article links below to learn more about iBeacon apps.

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