Inside iOS 7: iBeacons enhance apps' location awareness via Bluetooth LE

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
Apple's new iBeacons feature for iOS 7 implements a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) profile for micro-location, enabling a series of new geofencing capabilities for app developers.

WWDC iBeacons


At WWDC, Apple made little public mention of its new iBeacons feature in iOS 7, apart from showing the name prominently on a Keynote slide depicting a variety of other new features included in the release. However, developers' tweets and other comments have offered new illumination of what the new feature can do for their apps.

Micro-location door activation

Essentially, rather than using satellite signals to locate a device anywhere on Earth as GPS does, BLE can enable a mobile user to navigate and interact with specific regions geofenced by low cost signal emitters that can be placed anywhere, including indoors, and even on moving targets. Additionally, it appears iOS devices can also act as an iBeacon:

@kevinrj @bradlarson Great app idea! The sensitivity indoors using two iOS7 devices configured as iBeacons seems fairly solid.

? Bob Kressin (@macisv)


Acting as iBeacon, a user with an iOS 7 device in hand could trigger events around them, allowing them to, for example, turn on lights and unlock and open doors simply by signaling the user's proximity to devices listening for it via BLE.

While Apple's specific feature set for iBeacons remains under NDA, the BLE specification also supports the concept of device leashing, which could, for example, enable a peripheral like a watchband to communicate its location to a configured smartphone. The specification also supports peripheral push notifications, which Apple supports in new APIs in both OS X Mavericks and iOS 7.

Micro-location indoor navigation

iOS 7's iBeacons can be used by app developers to do things like build an interactive tour of a museum, where the user's attention is directed to specific exhibits as they walk freely within the building.

WWDC iBeacons


In more general terms, the feature can also be used enable indoor navigation similar to GPS in settings such as an airport or underground subway station where GPS signals aren't available, or specifically to enhance navigational accessibility for the blind or users with other impairments.

Location based marketing and Passbook tickets

Another example, trumpeted by ad network Adomaly, targets shoppers with a system designed to "continuously broadcasting ads to users phones," in what the company claims is the "first mobile ad network built on Apple iBeacon & Sonic sBeacon technology." The latter is an Android-compatible implementation of the same BLE feature.

This particular application makes iBeacons an extension of the geofencing Apple enabled in last year's Passbook, which lets an installed pass, ticket or loyalty card popup on the lock screen when you cross the geofence threshold of a defined GPS location. Using BLE, a merchant or other provider can define more targeted "micro-locations" to trigger an alert, in some cases requiring that you be in the presence of an iBeacon in order to validate a Passbook entry.

If being inundated with ads sounds terrible, at least Adomaly provides examples that make sense. The group states you can "create ads that specifically pertain to your customers? surroundings, thereby increasing the efficacy of those ads," or simply supply additional details on product selection (depicted below).


Source: Adomaly


Adomaly states "you can reach consumers in-aisle and at-shelf via our vast retail network. Our technology allows for passive messaging never before seen as a marketing tool," and adds, "Shelftalkers and signage are clunky and allow the consumer limited action. Adomaly enables you to deliver the same content, like deals and greetings, with the added functionality of loyalty programs, interactive games, and information on the consumer."

Adomaly offers beacon devices in packs of ten for $210 including shipping, making an individual geofence cost roughly $20 to establish.

BLE, aka Bluetooth SMART

The technology behind Bluetooth Low Energy originated at Nokia in the early 2000s as an alternative to the existing Bluetooth standard, which began at Ericsson in the mid 90s. Nokia originally began marketing BLE as "WiBree" in 2006.

While both wireless technologies operate within the same 2.4GHz radio spectrum, BLE is not backwardly compatible with "Classic Bluetooth," although both have, since 2010, been folded into the Bluetooth 4.0 specification. Bluetooth 4.0 compliant devices can support either or both Classic Bluetooth and BLE. Devices that support both protocols are called "dual mode."

Bluetooth


The primary differences in BLE over the previous Classic Bluetooth is that BLE (which has been branded as "Bluetooth Smart" for devices health and fitness monitors and "Bluetooth Smart Ready" for hosts such as a notebook or smartphone) uses much less power (supporting devices that can be powered for many months by a small button battery) and is designed to be simpler and cheaper to implement. It's also intended for applications that work within closer proximity, up to 150 feet.

Apple support for BLE in Bluetooth 4.0

In mid 2011, Apple joined the board of directors of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which also includes Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Toshiba and Lenovo.

Apple also added support for dual mode Bluetooth 4.0 in its mid-2011 MacBook Air and Mac mini, and subsequently added support to the iPhone 4S, making it the first Bluetooth 4.0 compliant smartphone.

Subsequent 2012 iOS devices, including the "New" iPad 3, iPhone 5 and the late 2012 iPad 4 and iPad mini also support Bluetooth 4.0. Apple also added Bluetooth 4.0 support to the mid-2012 MacBook Pros and the late-2012 iMac. Earlier Macs can add Bluetooth 4.0 support via a third party USB dongle.

Microsoft has not yet added general support for Bluetooth 4.0 and BLE in Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has added custom support for BLE to the Surface Pro, but not its Surface RT. Nokia's newest Lumia WP8 phones include BLE hardware, as do new Blackberry Z10 and Q10 models and recent higher-end models of HTC and Samsung smartphones.

BLE & AirDrop vs NFC

Google has also been slow to add official support for Bluetooth 4.0 in Android, leaving manufacturers to roll their own implementations. Instead, Google threw its support behind NFC, the technology behind Android Beam in late 2011's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

NFC is designed to read unpowered RFID tags as well as interact with Google Wallet payment terminals, and Android Beam applies it to adhoc file sharing, accomplished by holding two NFC-equipped phones together. It does not support iBeacon's concept of micro-location geofencing however, as it relies on contact proximity.

Pundits and analysts have been nagged Apple for not following Google's implementation of NFC, even as Samsung has advertised its support for Android Beam's 'bump to share' as "the next big thing." More recently, however, NFC's lackluster adoption has left it regarded as a significant failure compared to its year and a half of hype.

At WWDC, Apple's head of software development Craig Federighi introduced support for WiFi-based wireless sharing via AirDrop in iOS 7, quipping, "no need to wander around the room bumping your phone with one another."

Between BLE and AirDrop (which is much faster than BLE, and therefore uniquely qualified to handle file sharing), it appears unlikely Apple will shift gears to support NFC, given that its entire product line (apart from the 2010 iPhone 4) already supports BLE, which offers advantages over NFC in payments on top of its other supported features.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 36
    ifij775ifij775 Posts: 470member
    This tech seems to make NFC unnecessary. You have to be close, but not that close
  • Reply 2 of 36
    ppietrappietra Posts: 171member
    I don%u2019t see this being implemented for payments! It isn%u2019t as secure as NFC method, and payment terminals and other infrastructure are already going the NFC route.
    It does seem though it will take NFC%u2019s role in pretty much everything else!
  • Reply 3 of 36
    matrix07matrix07 Posts: 1,993member


    Can we say bye bye NFC? 


     


     


    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ppietra View Post



    I don%u2019t see this being implemented for payments! It isn%u2019t as secure as NFC method, and payment terminals and other infrastructure are already going the NFC route.

    It does seem though it will take NFC%u2019s role in pretty much everything else!


     


    I say even NFC role in mobile payment is in danger.

  • Reply 4 of 36
    ppietra wrote: »
    I don%u2019t see this being implemented for payments! It isn%u2019t as secure as NFC method

    Huh? BLE is just as secure. They both end up using encrypted exchanges for security. Proximity is not security.
  • Reply 5 of 36
    matrix07matrix07 Posts: 1,993member
    And I predict this thread will be troll-free, especially the one who champions NFC. They just has nothing to say. Heh heh...
  • Reply 6 of 36
    ppietrappietra Posts: 171member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by cwoloszynski View Post





    Huh? BLE is just as secure. They both end up using encrypted exchanges for security. Proximity is not security.


    Actually proximity increases security since data is transmitted in a very small space, significantly reducing any eavesdropping and the type of attacks possible

  • Reply 7 of 36
    ppietrappietra Posts: 171member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by matrix07 View Post



    And I predict this thread will be troll-free, especially the one who champions NFC. They just has nothing to say. Heh heh...


    Sorry! No Android, Apple fan since 1990. I am just making a constructive argument about NFC technological advantages in payment

  • Reply 8 of 36
    iaeeniaeen Posts: 588member
    ppietra wrote: »
    Actually proximity increases security since data is transmitted in a very small space, significantly reducing any eavesdropping and the type of attacks possible

    Eavesdropping isn't really an issue if the signal is properly encrypted. In any case, I would not want to use this technology unless the possibility of attacks was eliminated, not reduced. There are security measures which could (and should) be implemented that would make the range of transmission irrelevant.

    So the point is that if you are transmitting an unencrypted signal with no other security measures, then yes, proximity would add a little security. If on the other hand you have proper security measures in place, then the range the signal is broadcast is moot.
  • Reply 9 of 36
    macfandavemacfandave Posts: 603member
    I wonder if I could get a wearable iBeacon that's less chunky than purported iWatch. I'd like the iPhone's passcode lock to activate if it gets more than, say, 6 feet from me. It makes more sense than time-based locking. Also, I'd like my iWatch to ping me if I get more than a few feet from my iPhone.

    So many possibilities. . .
  • Reply 10 of 36
    geekdadgeekdad Posts: 1,131member


    I wonder which method is a bigger battery drain Bluetooth or NFC?

  • Reply 11 of 36
    ppietrappietra Posts: 171member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by iaeen View Post





    Eavesdropping isn't really an issue if the signal is properly encrypted. In any case, I would not want to use this technology unless the possibility of attacks was eliminated, not reduced. There are security measures which could (and should) be implemented that would make the range of transmission irrelevant.



    So the point is that if you are transmitting an unencrypted signal with no other security measures, then yes, proximity would add a little security. If on the other hand you have proper security measures in place, then the range the signal is broadcast is moot.


    Let us put it this way, if both techs have the same encryption, wont NFC add some extra-security because of proximity?


    And if iBeacom has more than 100 feet range, isnt it possible to continually monitor transactions without any one noticing it and use brute force to get relevant data? Isnt it easier to try to hack in to systems if you can do it from a distance without raising suspicions?


    You might think proximity is irrelevant, but by reducing exposure you reduce possible points of attack, and everyone knows that nothing is 100% secure!

  • Reply 12 of 36

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ifij775 View Post



    This tech seems to make NFC unnecessary. You have to be close, but not that close


     


    NFC has largely been DOA, Bluetooth except for maybe car infotainment connections isn't too far behind and has been essentially dead for the average person for some time, despite every other year the addition of profiles. The only thing that seems to have any traction today is Wifi.  Consumers want ease and simplicity, not an added step. Even printers, speaker systems and other devices that were all primarily Bluetooth based are Wifi now. Don't know much about Wifi Direct, but just not seeing any of these things taking off.

  • Reply 13 of 36
    matrix07matrix07 Posts: 1,993member
    geekdad wrote: »
    I wonder which method is a bigger battery drain Bluetooth or NFC?

    Yup. Would love to see the comparison.
  • Reply 14 of 36
    charlitunacharlituna Posts: 7,215member
    I like this idea for things like locations inside mails and as someone suggested for the blind and visually impaired.
  • Reply 15 of 36
    Classic Bluetooth was very limited in scope and very power hungry. That is what limited its adoption.
    On the other hand Bluetooth low energy is much more capable, useful and affordable. Now that there is a sizeable population of BLE iPhones(4S+5) in the wild, more manufacturers will be targeting it.
    Watches, wearable devices, health equipment, door locks, speakers, appliances, toys, etc.
  • Reply 16 of 36
    Why didn't you mention that the current version iPod touch also has bluetooth 4.0?
  • Reply 17 of 36
    iaeeniaeen Posts: 588member
    ppietra wrote: »
    Let us put it this way, if both techs have the same encryption, wont NFC add some extra-security because of proximity?
    And if iBeacom has more than 100 feet range, isnt it possible to continually monitor transactions without any one noticing it and use brute force to get relevant data? Isnt it easier to try to hack in to systems if you can do it from a distance without raising suspicions?
    You might think proximity is irrelevant, but by reducing exposure you reduce possible points of attack, and everyone knows that nothing is 100% secure!

    No, like I said: if the proper security measures are in place, range of broadcast is totally irrelevant. Unless you have a quantum computer (which doesn't exist yet), the calculations necessary to brute force modern encryption algorithms takes literally several millennia.
  • Reply 18 of 36
    correctionscorrections Posts: 1,386member
    Regarding security, NFC on Android has already been exploited.

    If security was a function of how short your encrypted transmissions are sent, then why even bother with HTTPS across the Internet?!

    Also, note that Apple hasn't yet rushed out a radio-based point of payment system that duplicates a plastic mag swipe credit card. Perhaps it's because that's the wrong way to do it? Hasn't worked for google.

    Instead, there's a flurry of payment experiments going on, many of which are based around the iPad. And the most prominent of these (Square and systems a like Apples own retail stores use) are still based on card swiping.

    At some point, there will likely be a shift to wireless app transactions based on proximity. But having to physically contact the device to a pad via NFC is not catching on.

    Also, the idea of putting all your credit cards and NFC payment options on your phone really raises the peoblem of how do you get home when your money, transit token, and cab app are all on a device that has run out of power.
  • Reply 19 of 36
    macslutmacslut Posts: 514member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by thataveragejoe View Post


     


    NFC has largely been DOA, Bluetooth except for maybe car infotainment connections isn't too far behind and has been essentially dead for the average person for some time, despite every other year the addition of profiles. The only thing that seems to have any traction today is Wifi.  Consumers want ease and simplicity, not an added step. Even printers, speaker systems and other devices that were all primarily Bluetooth based are Wifi now. Don't know much about Wifi Direct, but just not seeing any of these things taking off.



     


    I agree NFC has never gotten any traction in the US, but Bluetooth is far from dead.  I currently have dozens of items in my Bluetooth list that I connect to on a regular basis.


     


    Wi-Fi doesn't add simplicity over Bluetooth, in fact, it adds complexity since you either have to connect to a network or run in direct mode.  Maintaining a network isn't always an option and running in direct mode presents other issues (like the inability to connect to two networks at the same time).  Properly implemented Bluetooth is really simple to set up, although admittedly many vendors are idiots and do very foolish things.  Entering a pin on Bluetooth can be no different from entering a password on a Wi-Fi network.


     


    I'm by no means anti-Wi-Fi... I have a large house with 7 Wi-Fi access points, I use it for all kinds of networking, and devices like security cameras, Nest, Sonos, picture frames, printers, Eye-Fi, security systems, AirPlay/AirPrint and other random stuff...


     


    But there are many things where Bluetooth makes more sense.  We have 3 cars and a boat with Bluetooth integration, remote controls, portable speakers, a grill thermometer, stereo adapters, sunglasses, headphones, dog collar, a diagnostic sensor for my cars, and I'm getting ready to install a controller for our electronic gate and garage doors.


     


    It's pretty easy to see where each of these items makes sense to be Bluetooth versus Wi-Fi, and that is, for the most part, Wi-Fi has additional cost, both in the hardware, and in power consumption.  It's faster than Bluetooth, so it makes sense to use it when that speed is needed, and when for the most part a network is available.  Additionally it makes sense to use when connecting to the Internet is required.


     


    Bluetooth on the other hand is cheaper both in hardware and power consumption.  It makes sense to use when you don't want to connect to the Internet or a network and even more sense when you couldn't do that anyway. 


     


    As this article points out, Bluetooth is evolving (so is Wi-Fi), and new uses for it only show it has more life ahead of it.

  • Reply 20 of 36
    Beam me up Scotty.
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