Could you please compare iBeacons with other locationing techniques out there such as RFID and RSSI from the phone. #iBeaconWebinar

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Could you please compare iBeacons with some of the other locationing techniques out there such as RFID and RSSI from the phone. #iBeaconWebinar
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Bill Young

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Posted 3 years ago

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Matthew Gast

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iBeacons are based on proximity, so they are used to say "my device is near this point of interest."  Because they tend to operate at lower power, they are more often using line of sight and there is a dominant path with a statistically well-behaved distribution of power values.  As a result, you can get a much more precise indication of distance from a beacon.  In contrast, techniques like Wi-Fi RSSI have much more statistical noise in the data that is produced, and there just aren't that many Wi-Fi points to measure from even in high-density networks.  RFID is in a separate class; most RFID devices are ultra-low power and aren't really based on anything that looks like data communications.
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It's interesting.  With all these wireless technologies, I keep coming back to a presentation I saw at WVU back in the early 90's put on by the folks from Xerox PARC.  The topic was "Ubiquitous Computing" and how "in the future" computer technology would conform to us vs. the other way around.  [It's now 2014 and I'm still waiting. :-) ]

An example given was that eventually computing screens would be so thin/large/cheap that you'd effectively have chalkboard-sized screens in every home.  And you might be at a friend's house and suddenly want to show them something from your collection of files.  So you'd walk up to the screen and instantly it would recognize you were you and that screen would, in essence, become a portal onto your files.  At the time Java was the "new hotness" being close to its 1.0 release, and there were things like Java rings you could wear on your finger that they thought could be used to ID you to the screen.

In that presentation, they showed how at PARC they had built a system using infrared sensors mounted in the ceiling around the building and wired using standard phone wire (keep in mind the timeframe as this pre-dates Wi-Fi).  Then staff members were each issued a badge with an infrared light on it that blinked out their ID.  So as they moved around the building, a computer system tracked where they were with the sensors (i.e., infrared wireless).  This they then hooked into their phone system so that if, say, Chuck from Accounting was over talking to Susan in HR, if a call came in for Chuck, the system automatically routed the call to Susan's phone and rang it using Chuck's personalized ringtone so that Chuck knew the call was for him..  (Again, keep in mind we're talking early 90's here!)  They had even taken into account privacy concerns in that users could simply remove their badge and place it in a drawer to "go dark"; for example, when they went to the bathroom.

But from then 'til now, we've seen this sort of thing played out over and over in various forms.  A few years after that I did consulting at a facility that used proximity badges that you swiped in front of sensors to let you in/out of the building and secure rooms.

Currently I walk around my office with a magnetic badge around my neck (a step back), which I swipe on card readers located near our exits/entrances to indicate when I come in the building or go out.  It's a terribly simplistic system (implemented because we're piggybacking off the university's setup), but I loath that I need to actively do anything at all let alone physically swipe a card vs. "the system" simply being aware that I'm here.

I researched the possibility of using RFID badges and getting RFID readers, but passive RFID (which is what I really wanted) is such that reasonably priced RFID readers only have a range of a few inches, whereas the kind that are akin to an EZ Pass cost far too much for our setup.  The other option was active RFID badges, but that means batteries, and if employees don't realize their badge is "dead" nothing works.

And even with such "proximity" sensors, if you only place them near exits/entrances, one alone is no good as it doesn't tell you whether the person is coming or going.  You'd need to install at least 2 per exit/entrance with one further inside than the other, then have software note where the employee was sensed and in what order, as the "vector" would indicate whether they were coming in or going out.  (In the case of our magnetic card readers, their placement is such that if you swipe on one outside a door, it's assumed you're heading in, and vice versa.)

Of course, as the topic is iBeacons, it occurred to me to use them in reverse from what most folks think of.  That is, typically you think of iBeacons as being placed in specific locations (much like beacons used in aviation near airports/etc.).  Then every user has a smartphone which senses the beacon and reacts.  But it occurred to me to invert this, much like those luggage tracking tags you can find on Amazon (e.g., LassoTag).  Give each employee an iBeacon in the form of their badge, then have something check for their proximity.  But again, same limitations apply as above.

But using iBeacons as intended, maybe placing enough around the building so that employees walking around could have their smartphones know they were in the building and notify some attendance system, might work.  Granted, it assumes that every employee must have and walk in with their phone on them (and it's powered on and connected to the network), but it has potential.  Heck, I for one typically walk into my office and lay my iPhone on my desk and leave it there for the day.  This setup would actually work for that, not requiring me to carry my phone with me throughout the building, but only when I come and go.

And one thing that occurs to me is that in the case of battery-powered iBeacons, there is absolutely nothing in the tech to give you a heads up if a Beacon is about to die.  Unlike Z-Wave devices used in home automation (or similarly Zigbee devices), which are more than capable of sending out a notification of the power level of their batteries (my home setup uses Z-Wave), iBeacons/AltBeacons doesn't offer anything along those lines.  It is absolutely brain-dead simple "chirp it's me" kind of notifications and that's it.

Truth is, between GPS chips in smartphones, BLE iBeacons, passive/active RFID, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, etc., there are a myriad of possibilities and limitations to each.  Between frequency interference, security concerns, and often battery/power, I'm still looking for better solutions both at work and home.  (e.g., I use Z-Wave for home automation, but I'd love to have my home smarter about when I am close to home to do things like automatically turn on the lights.  I've contemplated everything from some kind of Z-wave keyfob that my controller senses and reacts to intelligently, to now putting an iBeacon somewhere in my house that triggers an app on my phone which in turn notifies the house I'm there.)

But the general area of wireless tech is quite exciting.  And iBeacons big selling point, to some extent, is that it use Bluetooth LE, and with all the devices out there now with Bluetooth chips already in them, it definitely lends itself to some interesting possibilities.

One question I do have for you, Matthew, is how exactly iBeacons fits in with Aerohive.  I didn't quite get the relationsihp between Aerohive and Radius (beyond the "Hey we're all into wireless stuff" :-) ).  That is, is Aerohive intending to actively do anything with Beacons in their product line, and if so, what exactly?  Sorry, I may have missed it during the presentation yesterday.  I seem to recall someone saying something about maybe placing a USB RadBeacon into the port on an AP, but didn't quite get if that was just a "Hey, what if you do this?" or if there was a real plan there somewhere.
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Matthew Gast

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Today, we have a partnership with Radius that allows you to use a RadBeacon on one of our APs.  One of the major motivations for us to do that is that using iBeacons to trigger interactions with something else on the network is quite powerful, and thus it helps to have Wi-Fi present in the neighborhood of iBeacons.


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Today indoor location technology has paved the way for a number of location-based services, be it enhanced customer engagement, improved navigation or risk mitigation. This has made it highly critical for businesses to have access to indoor location information that is accurate, and cost effective. 

Therefore it is not surprising that most marketers today are already wondering - which location technology will my business benefit from? - Wi-Fi or iBeacon or NFC or GPS.

To put it in a nutshell, each of these technologies have their own limitations and businesses need to use the right combination of two or more based on their budget and what they are trying to achieve. We have discussed about the differences between these technologies in detail here:

 iBeacon vs RFID -

iBeacon vs NFC vs GPS -

iBeacon vs Wi-Fi -