NFC, Bluetooth, and iBeacons. Getting started.

20th Mar 2015

Read Time: 4:11

NFC, Bluetooth, and iBeacons. Getting started.

Reach out and range someone.

Yes, I know this isn't bleeding edge technology but honestly, I'm only now finding the time and need for this kind of tech. Actually, I'm kind of glad I waited to dig in. You early pioneers and early adopters smoothed the trail for me a bit. Given my kludgy code skills, I need all the copy/paste opportunities available. Bear with me as I bubble gum and rubber band this concept together.

Near Field Communication, the next frontier... maybe.

In effect, we've all spent the last 10 years finding a better way to engage directly with consumers at the buying decision. More importantly for us marketing types, we've pushed for any and all methods of tracking those engagements. You know... to deliver that pesky ROI that advertisers are so wrapped up in these days? NFC makes direct connections possible. Tie an account to a Facebook or LinkedIn account and you've got some serious demographic data flowing. Tie all of that to a rewards card or a trackable SKU and you've got your ROI. It almost sounds too simple but stick with me here. There are, per usual, some fatal flaws.

Options on NFC.

First, lets talk options. I'm going to broaden the typical definition's range a little as the tech is constantly improving. Generally speaking, NFC is radio or field communication between devices and a close range. This range is typically from physical contact, out to 1-3 meters, and yes, I just went metric there because all of these options typically report metric. Thanks a lot, science.

RFID.

Radio Frequency Identification uses electromagnetic fields to transfer data for the purpose of identifying tracking tags [sawce]. Typical uses for these are access cards, id badges, and the occasional motorcycle ignition. I put RFID on an older Ducati a few years ago and it was the most consistently functional piece of the wiring until I finally rewired the whole bike.

Bluetooth.

The sweetheart of the industry, we've all got experience here. Does your phone talk through your car, hands-free? Have a speaker in your house that plays music from your phone? Maybe you've got one of those awesome flashy ear pieces hanging off your head. All of these are bluetooth. Its a short rage wireless technology using short-wave UHF radio (if you're into that kind of stuff) and sorts out peer-to-peer connectivity well enough to be trusted in most domestic use cases [sawce].

Bluetooth Low Energy.

Basically Bluetooth's sexy cousin that's into all the cool stuff. Typically seen in use in active wearables like the Fitbit, Fuelband, and Jawbone Up. The health and fitness world jumped on Bluetooth LE or "Bluetooth Smart" back in the day for its small size, low power requirements, and general compatibility. [sawce]. The great thing is that it also increased the range potential for NFC technology. This increased range brings us to today's iBeacons or indoor positioning systems.

iBeacon.

One by itself can be called an iBeacon but its basically an expensive Bluetooth chip. Put that one iBeacon with a few of its friends and you've got a positioning system that can be used for any number of systems. Each beacon has a UUID, and a Major and Minor identifier pair, so as not to get mixed up with the others in the area. You set up hierarchies to keep all your beacon sets playing in their own sandboxes [sawce]. They offer region monitoring and ranging, and the chips are typically piggybacked with a few other handy features to bring more data to the table. The ones I just picked up have a thermometer and accelerometer baked in, allowing for some fun data points and use cases beyond basic tracking. Accessible variable power settings are also a nice feature, allowing for range adjustment from immediate to +/- 50m.

How do we use them?

Ok, all geek aside we've got to figure out how to monetize on these handy pieces of silicon witchcraft. Remember that talk on ROI a few paragraphs back? The good news is the hardware cost. It's basically negligible regardless of your NFC choice. All these chips range in retail price from $.10 to $25. Some of the really fancy iBeacons get pricy but you're getting a lot for your money. RFID tags, bracelets, and cards are cheap at small scale and the parts are, for the most part, indestructible. Your real cost comes in software and data science.

Did someone say there was bad news? Each and every one of these options require the customer or participant to possess something that isn't usually on their person, barring the occasional user with an NFC enabled Android phone. RFID and NFC require a chip in the form of a card, wristband, button, sticker, etc. The iBeacon setup requires a purpose build application that is at least running in the background on your device. Beyond that, all user data tied to that chip or app is opt-in, so your value proposition has to be a good one. "What gift/product/reward makes it worth it for that millennial and his mom to give us their information pre-purchase?" Therein lies the rub.

Final thoughts.

So... As with everything else in retail technology, there are at least as many questions as answers but every day we're learning a little more. I'm currently running some iBeacon tests around my house using Estimote's Dev Kit [link]. My wife thinks I've lost my mind but I assure you that my wandering around the house aimlessly will bring learning. Visit back to see my next installment on home automation with iBeacon technology. What learnings I bring from these experiments will hopefully find their way into a retail location near you.

-jt

Blog by Jay Thornton