We interviewed Mark Modzelewski, the Chief of Staff at Estimote, Inc. to get his insight into the creative ways Beacons are being used in commercial and enterprise applications and the opportunities they create for the Internet of Things.

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Beacons are small wireless sensors that use Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Version 4.0+) to broadcast radio signals that can be picked up by phones and other devices to trigger contextual actions.

They are often used for indoor positioning (where GPS can’t reach.) Plus, the Estimote Beacons include motion and temperature sensors, which combined with the lower power requirements, make them a great solution for lots of Internet of Things applications.

If you’d like to geek out on all the technical details, Estimote has a great blog post with all the science and engineering that goes into making beacons work.

Mark, what has been one of the most successful/creative uses of beacons you’ve seen?

It’s interesting. Even though the original push was to utilize beacons for retail, and retail is where we make most of our revenue, most of the applications in those environments have still been tepid.

Retail tends to move slowly. They have big systems to deal with, and a lot to integrate. Even though we are in widespread adoption across two of the ten largest retailers in the US, they are utilizing beacons with very mild manners right now and have not opened up all the capabilities of the beacons.

Retail use of beacons is slowly gaining more and more depth to it, but it’s mostly location and mapping for now. These are experiences that aren’t out of the ordinary for retail and beacons are icing on the cake.

When we see far more aggressive or creative uses of beacons, it tends to be in things like the museum space.

Museums are quick to implement. They get the beacons and three weeks later have something running. We’ve seen beacons used in ways you might expect, somebody touring through a museum and being able to scan artwork to get extra information. We’re also seeing them used in corporate and installation pieces.

One creative use that was an art installation at the Concert Hall of Bruges commemorating World War I. They gave every guest a drumstick, like what a military drummer would use, that acted as a wand.

The drumstick had embedded beacon technology in it and allowed the guest to have an interactive experience with video and sound, as you went throughout the exhibition.

Once people fully understand how the technology can be applied, implementations like these are where you start seeing what might happen in the environment once it’s fully integrated.

You mentioned retail as a leader in beacon adoption, what industry do you anticipate will be the next to take off?

We already see industrial and warehousing using beacons. On-campus is a big thing too. Both college and corporate campuses are successfully using beacons for mapping.

Simple things like meeting room reservations and minor security check-in have been places beacons work well. One of the things about tap badges that you see in a lot of environments like hospitals and corporate campuses is a situation where five doctors go to lunch; one taps his badge, five walk through the door. You then only know where one of the doctors is.

The great thing about using the phone to interact with beacons is people almost always have it with them. We see this scenario extended in other environments like warehouses, giant wholesale stores, as well as in hospitals for tracking equipment.

Estimote Beacon

In some of the early tests, we thought that in a hospital environment beacons would be utilized to help locate people. “We’ll have an emergency, and we’ll be able to quickly find the people we need.”

What hospitals are finding is that an excellent use of beacons is for locating extraordinarily expensive leased equipment which allows for better billing room-by-room.

That’s the first step. It’s not that those other things aren’t part of the game plan, it’s just that when you’re not dealing with people, you’re not dealing with employment contracts, potential union workforce, and things like that which can slow down your implementation. You can get people familiar with the technology in other ways.

There are some applications of beacons that we see in the industrial space. An engine factory with parts that usually move all the way through the system in a particular, very distinct order and with very expensive parts that need to arrive at the assembly line at a precise moment. We’ve seen some tests of beacons in that environment as well as things like large beverage factories.

The way beacons are often used in industry is funny. The systems there are so expensive and are updated so rarely that the systems have been retrofitted over and over again, starting back in the 1960s.

Some of this equipment will have the beacon on it that gives you a secondary auxiliary means of recording information. Like if something’s in a particular place, that it’s moving in a certain way, or that there’s a certain temperature there.

That is where you see beacons used in Industrial IoT. It’s a solution when you are looking for an augmenting technology. Being that it’s so difficult to do the other updates to these industrial systems, beacons can be a quick implementation with significant gains.

People get upset at how slow the environment is for a lot of industrial technologies. But there’s a reason for it. The investments are extraordinary. It’s an area that needs a lot of technology augmentation rather than complete replacement on a regular basis.

You can see where a variety of things, whether they are beacons or other things that potentially come out of the Bluetooth Smart standard, could allow for quick adoption in the workplace.
You mentioned motion and temperature. We mostly hear about location when discussing beacons. How are developers using the motion and temperature sensors in the Estimote Beacons?

We’ve been doing a lot to perfect it. Temperature is not naturally super-accurate in anyone’s chipset, not just ours. We’ve put a lot of effort into figuring out different techniques and augmentations for it.

We see temperature used in situations that need the temperature to be within a certain range. In scenarios like the transport of items that require temperature regulation, but only need a very high or a very low read, they don’t need to be within three degrees. Beacons are an excellent solution, and we see our beacons used this way.

Motion sensing is where we certainly see a pickup, especially in the retail environment. You can put the Estimote Sticker on the new LeBron Nike. When somebody in the store picks it up, the screens around them suddenly blare out the latest commercial for Lebron’s shoe.

Estimote Sticker

One of our sticker beacons is on the object, and the shear motion of it triggers the rest of the activity.

We’re starting to see things like that. It’s not necessarily a use case that taps into the depth of what the technology could be, but it’s certainly an example where even somebody without the phone, even somebody without the app can have a beacon experience.

The ‘bread and butter’ is still location, and what that means for providing context to an environment. The overwhelming majority of large organizations are still trying to get used to our location concept before they tap some of the other ones.

That’s interesting the way you describe how people are using motion and temperature for IoT projects. At Treeline, we’ve built an IoT platform to handle common tasks associated with an IoT project (device to hub to router to cloud to interface), and it was initially used with a reed switch to measure open and closes. But we quickly found that it was valuable for all types of projects where you need to measure deltas (i.e. incremental changes in variables) like on/off, in/out, too hot/too cold, etc. or the “absence of” (i.e. has not moved, has not opened.)

Exactly. It’s those kinds of things that are happening now. It’s not that there isn’t a need for location and movement with high accuracy, and that’s something that’s coming as the stack gets better and better on top of them.

Let’s be honest, the beacon itself is not that smart. It’s a tiny little lighthouse; it has a couple of neat little functions, but it’s everything you build on top of it that makes it so powerful. This goes for anything you’re building on the Bluetooth Smart standard. There are limitations to what the actual device is in the range of being able to do at this time.

However, you can make a pretty sophisticated experience if you know what you’re doing on the software side. Again, it still tends to be within ranges, but ranges provide plenty of experience right now. We know they’ll work down to two centimeters, but there’s not much reason to yet.

What has been one of the most challenging technical hurdles Estimote has overcome to improve beacon technology?

It started with things like noise canceling algorithms to improve distance estimations and then security analytics layers. One of the biggest challenges to overcome was fleet management. Even though there likely are deployments that have more beacons at a single location, we are the only company that has been able to deploy over many, many stores within a chain and make them work. Having hundreds of stores work on a Black Friday and not go down and provide the analytics you need, that’s a real trick.

Pulling that off was a very new experience. It’s certainly, something we can improve on. Something working at that scale provides so many problems to solve.

There is the SDK itself. Quite a load of knowledge gets put into that. Various fleet management tools, and being able to gather that information to utilize push notifications and location across different footprints just as consistently. That’s something that we’re particularly proud of right now.

As an industry insider, is there anything else you think we should be aware of? Are you excited about any new developments out there?

The adoption of Bluetooth Smart has been pretty amazing. What we see happening with BT 4.2 coming down the pipe is interesting. Some of the things that Google’s doing with the open protocol Eddystone is pretty exciting.

It’s a little hard to make commentary when dealing with our dear friends at Apple. But certainly, they’ve got a lot of tricks up their sleeve and we’re starting to better understand what they have planned.

Also a lot of the integration of Bluetooth Smart into other objects is impressive. Till now it’s been tags, but now that it integrates into things like lighting, into the actual devices themselves, starting to manage that begins to be pretty amazing to us.

We do have a non-beacon piece of hardware that we will be releasing very soon, that we’re pretty excited about. To have various things that utilize Bluetooth Smart that aren’t necessarily dependent on say, somebody having that specific app or that exact phone, but to still have an experience from the beacon by utilizing its location, placement, temperature, and motion. It’s a pretty exciting world that’s starting to open up right now.
(*Images courtesy of Estimote, Inc.)

The Internet of Things series is brought to you by Treeline Interactive and is authored by Tim Homuth and Joe Austin. Our objective is to provide you with information about the rapidly evolving field of the Internet of Things by bringing you interviews and insight from industry leaders. If you have any questions, insight, or suggestions for articles please email us at IoT@treelineinteractive.com.

  • Great post! I am not very familiar with beacons but this post helps me understand it a little bit better. Keep up the good work and I wish you all the best.-Chris Thompson