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Apple's iBeacon turns location sensing inside out

John Cox | Feb. 11, 2014
'Where am I?' becomes 'Here I am!' with Apple iBeacon technology.

Apple's iBeacon location sensing technology, based on the Bluetooth radio in your iPhone, promises to personalise the world around you. For users, this increasingly popular technology changes the question of "Where am I?" into the announcement "Here I am!"

An iBeacon is a Bluetooth Low Energy radio that broadcasts a signal in a given area, say the doorway to a clothing or grocery store. Your iPhone if it has Bluetooth 4.0, and the radio is turned on, and iOS notifications and location services are active can detect that signal and query the beacon. The beacon uses radio signal strength to figure out the phone's location and can share that with iOS. Your phone shows an invitation from the beacon to enable something like "in-store notifications," which involves sharing your Bluetooth-determined location.

If you accept, your phone downloads an app over a Wi-Fi or cellular link and the store can then send you stuff, such as coupons or special offers, or provide services such as buying advice, product ratings, or an updated loyalty card, as you move within range of different beacons throughout the store.

By itself, an iBeacon can't track you. Its job is to create a kind of electronic tripwire that sets up a connection through your iPhone between you and a backend server of some kind. Only then, can "the system" see where you are, deduce something about your interests, and present information tailored to you and your position.

Apple itself uses iBeacon in its own retail stores [see photo, above]. Customers walk into the store past an iBeacon, receive a notification to enable "in-store notifications" and if they agree, are then digitally greeted with a dashboard for that store's location. The NFL used iBeacons at its recent "Super Bowl Boulevard" festivities along Broadway in Times Square. Later this year 20 major league baseball stadiums will feature iBeacon deployments.

But the same technology is capable of supporting more advanced services in the future, including mobile payments. Apple, long criticized for not making use of distance-challenged Near Field Communications (NFC) chips in its phones for a mobile wallet application, is now seen by some as using iBeacon as part of a Bluetooth-based alternative to NFC.

Mashable's Lance Ulanoff gives a clear account of his recent iBeacon experience at Apple's Grand Central Store in New York City.

Here's how he describes the purchase he made there, using his iPhone and the EasyPay system: "We started by using the iPhone to scan the product barcode and then we had to enter our Apple ID, pretty much the way we would for any online Apple purchase [using the credit card data on file with one's Apple account]. The one key difference was that this transaction ended with a digital receipt, one that we could show to a clerk if anyone stopped us on the way out."


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