Google puts Eddystone beacons at heart of open source IoT vision

While Google didn’t make any major announcements at its Ubiquity IoT Developer Summit this week, the search engine giant did highlight its intention to further the development of open source IoT applications – where its open version of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons took center stage.

Google has invested substantially into research and development of outdoor geolocation for over ten years now, with the aim of building application program interfaces (APIs) that assist developers using GPS, WiFi, and cell towers to build apps for implementations such as navigation.

Eddystone is Google’s very own beacon platform, which has a rather notable advantage over other beacon environments in that Eddystone can broadcast messages to smartphones through the Google Chrome browser without the need for a specific app. Support for Eddystone is built into the ‘Nearby’ API, available to developers from Google Play Services, or from GitHub under the Apache 2.0 licence.

This is Eddystone’s main advantage. Thanks to Google’s influence over Android it can turn the beacon experience into an automated process, instead of app-dependent. As Chrome comes as the default browser on Android OS, it has a great chance of converting consumers to beacons. However, unless Google creates a comfortable user experience and ensures tight security, there’s the possibility that users will get frustrated and simply disable beacons in the OS – potentially never to return.

Beacons are small, BLE sensors that can attach to any location or object, which can broadcast and receive small radio signals (iBeacon or Eddystone packets) to and from a smartphone, which can then interpret these messages to trigger alerts or create useful notifications. Many hardware beacons have batteries that can last up to three years, depending on their signal range, but beacons powered by solar, kinetic, or indoor light energy are emerging.

Beacons are probably best known for uses in retail, media marketing and public transport, but more recently, BLE beacons are also being installed in high schools in the US, using the Eddystone protocol to broadcast content to the smartphones of students, staff, and parents, such as videos and news about recent academic achievements and in-game alerts at school sporting events.

“Our core premise is that you should be able to walk up to any ‘smart’ physical object (e.g. a vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car) and interact with it without first downloading an app. The user experience of smart objects should be much like links in a web browser: i.e. just tap and use,” said Matthew Kulick, a Google product manager.”

Google isn’t the first to remove the necessity for users to have an app installed, in November 2014, Samsung asserted its independence from Google’s Android worldview by releasing its Proximity technology and Placedge SDK. These form a mobile marketing platform based on BLE beacons, but with no need for an app.

Beacons also have potential implementations in fields such as emergency services, to increase response times for indoor incidents, or voice alerts for the visually-impaired.

A recent study from ABI Research reports that as well as the retail sector, the Out of Home (OOH) advertising industry is seeing large growth, with some major deployments in Europe such as Stroer’s plans to roll-out 50,000 beacons in Germany, and Exterion Media set to make similar deployments in the UK and Holland. ABI Research cites beacon manufacturer Sensoro as a major emerging player, with over 110,000 beacons now deployed in China.

Another major Bluetooth beacon vendor, Gimbal (a Qualcomm spin-out), is one of iBeacon’s many hardware partners but hasn’t yet announced any alliance with Google. However, Google will be thinking far more widely than just about near term alliances. Eddystone is likely to be just an early concrete indicator of a bigger Google vision for how users and devices interact.

Gimbal recently announced a new partnership with digital signage manufacturer NanoLumens, to add its beacon functionality to the entire NanoLumens product line. The USB beacons will be plugged into the panels, allowing NanoLumens customers to add mobile app integrations and proximity services to their deployments.