14 July 2015

Lighting the way with BLE beacons

Originally posted on the Google Developers blog.

Posted by Chandu Thota, Engineering Director and Matthew Kulick, Product Manager

Just like lighthouses have helped sailors navigate the world for thousands of years, electronic beacons can be used to provide precise location and contextual cues within apps to help you navigate the world. For instance, a beacon can label a bus stop so your phone knows to have your ticket ready, or a museum app can provide background on the exhibit you’re standing in front of. Today, we’re beginning to roll out a new set of features to help developers build apps using this technology. This includes a new open format for Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons to communicate with people’s devices, a way for you to add this meaningful data to your apps and to Google services, as well as a way to manage your fleet of beacons efficiently.

Eddystone: an open BLE beacon format

Working closely with partners in the BLE beacon industry, we’ve learned a lot about the needs and the limitations of existing beacon technology. So we set out to build a new class of beacons that addresses real-life use-cases, cross-platform support, and security.

At the core of what it means to be a BLE beacon is the frame format—i.e., a language—that a beacon sends out into the world. Today, we’re expanding the range of use cases for beacon technology by publishing a new and open format for BLE beacons that anyone can use: Eddystone. Eddystone is robust and extensible: It supports multiple frame types for different use cases, and it supports versioning to make introducing new functionality easier. It’s cross-platform, capable of supporting Android, iOS or any platform that supports BLE beacons. And it’s available on GitHub under the open-source Apache v2.0 license, for everyone to use and help improve.

By design, a beacon is meant to be discoverable by any nearby Bluetooth Smart device, via its identifier which is a public signal. At the same time, privacy and security are really important, so we built in a feature called Ephemeral Identifiers (EIDs) which change frequently, and allow only authorized clients to decode them. EIDs will enable you to securely do things like find your luggage once you get off the plane or find your lost keys. We’ll publish the technical specs of this design soon.


Eddystone for developers: Better context for your apps

Eddystone offers two key developer benefits: better semantic context and precise location. To support these, we’re launching two new APIs. The Nearby API for Android and iOS makes it easier for apps to find and communicate with nearby devices and beacons, such as a specific bus stop or a particular art exhibit in a museum, providing better context. And the Proximity Beacon API lets developers associate semantic location (i.e., a place associated with a lat/long) and related data with beacons, stored in the cloud. This API will also be used in existing location APIs, such as the next version of the Places API.

Eddystone for beacon manufacturers: Single hardware for multiple platforms

Eddystone’s extensible frame formats allow hardware manufacturers to support multiple mobile platforms and application scenarios with a single piece of hardware. An existing BLE beacon can be made Eddystone compliant with a simple firmware update. At the core, we built Eddystone as an open and extensible protocol that’s also interoperable, so we’ll also introduce an Eddystone certification process in the near future by closely working with hardware manufacturing partners. We already have a number of partners that have built Eddystone-compliant beacons.

Eddystone for businesses: Secure and manage your beacon fleet with ease

As businesses move from validating their beacon-assisted apps to deploying beacons at scale in places like stadiums and transit stations, hardware installation and maintenance can be challenging: which beacons are working, broken, missing or displaced? So starting today, beacons that implement Eddystone’s telemetry frame (Eddystone-TLM) in combination with the Proximity Beacon API’s diagnostic endpoint can help deployers monitor their beacons’ battery health and displacement—common logistical challenges with low-cost beacon hardware.

Eddystone for Google products: New, improved user experiences

We’re also starting to improve Google’s own products and services with beacons. Google Maps launched beacon-based transit notifications in Portland earlier this year, to help people get faster access to real-time transit schedules for specific stations. And soon, Google Now will also be able to use this contextual information to help prioritize the most relevant cards, like showing you menu items when you’re inside a restaurant.

We want to make beacons useful even when a mobile app is not available; to that end, the Physical Web project will be using Eddystone beacons that broadcast URLs to help people interact with their surroundings.

Beacons are an important way to deliver better experiences for users of your apps, whether you choose to use Eddystone with your own products and services or as part of a broader Google solution like the Places API or Nearby API. The ecosystem of app developers and beacon manufacturers is important in pushing these technologies forward and the best ideas won’t come from just one company, so we encourage you to get some Eddystone-supported beacons today from our partners and begin building!