Beacons like this one from Estimote  are already live in some US stores

Micro-location takes off with Bluetooth Beacons

Indoor location technology is becoming more accurate and less power-hungry with the roll-out of always-on ‘Bluetooth Smart’ technology.

The new systems use wireless beacons sending out signals that can be detected automatically by smartphone apps, and they could supplant near-field communications (NFC) for mobile wallet applications, thanks to the larger installed base of Bluetooth.

The beacons also promise to replace battery-hungry alternatives such as GPS for many location-based services, and are just the first generation of what will become a far broader set of smart micro-location devices, said Steve Hegenderfer, head of development programmes at the Bluetooth SIG.

“In the longer term, I look more at micro-location than just retail,” he said. “Bluetooth Smart’s big advantage is infrastructure – you don’t need any. You could attach a beacon to a device and collect data as you walk by.” He added that beacons will soon be frugal enough to be powered by scavenged energy, while still communicating with each other wirelessly.

Bluetooth Smart was adapted from, but is not backward-compatible with, classic Bluetooth. It was incorporated into the Bluetooth 4.0 specification and it is supported by many modern smartphones, thanks to software-based radios able to work in both modes.

Other applications include smart watches, health monitors and proximity sensors. The technology is similar to NFC but with greater range and the ability to push content to the smartphone.

Hegenderfer said that, whilst phones have had the necessary dual-mode radios for several years, the big challenge has been to get native support for Bluetooth Smart into the operating systems. Apple had this first, but it is now in both Windows 8 and Android 4.3/4.4 as well.

“When we look at Bluetooth today, it’s about me and the 30 metres around me,” he added. “What I see in the future is more an Internet of everything, with sensors all over the place talking not only to a central device but to each other.”

Bluetooth beacons are live in the US and Australia in a range of retailers, including Apple stores, clothing shops, and department stores. Beacons also deliver location-based visitor information at a number of historic sites, including the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Henry Ford Museum.

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