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Decoding iBeacons, BLE, And Other Location-Based Tools

By Marko Tisler in · Technology · April 12, 2016

Location-based services are not a new paradigm. Mobile networks have been providing location information for years and we are all familiar with GPS.

These technologies however don’t really work that well when determining location indoors. Other means of indoor location detection are available and there are several technologies that are used to address the gap of indoor positioning.

The most common indoor positioning technologies today are using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Apple’s version called iBeacons, Near Field Communication (NFC), Quick Response (QR) codes, and Wi-Fi. People like quick solutions so the question that comes to mind almost instinctively is which technology is the best? And like most answers that have to do with technology the answer is: It depends.

It depends on what you are tracking, whether the tracking needs to be done passively by a network of sensors or actively by using an application on a tracked device, the accuracy required, whether results need be available in real-time and so on.

There is also no way of avoiding the question of how much money is available for investing in indoor location technology.

Let’s quickly dive into what I think are the three most important factors when evaluating indoor location technology.

What's being tracked?

We either want to track people or assets, or what I like to call them - things. Tracking people is normally tied to tracking their smartphones as a person’s identity. In other words, our physical identity is already mapped to a digital identity.

Tracking things requires them to have a digital identity as well. They can be given one either if they are equipped with special tags or if they already come equipped with one of the technologies used for location tracking. Smartphones normally already have built-in Wi-Fi and BLE as well as NFC.

Active or passive

Deciding between active or passive tracking is normally based on whether or not we want to interact with users. Passive tracking means people or things are being tracked without any active interaction with the system while active tracking normally means using an app on the device to aid with the location tracking.

Technologies like BLE, NFC, and QR codes are associated with active tracking because they require an application on the tracked device, which means active user engagement. If there is no application, there is no location information therefore active tracking is most appropriate for situations where users are strongly incentivized to use the application.

For example, museums can use that location information to actively guide people through the venue and show relevant exhibit information on their device based on proximity information.

Passive tracking is often associated with Wi-Fi because it does not require any running applications on the device, only that the Wi-Fi radio is turned on. 

Accuracy

While some location-based services may only require information about physical presence in a room or a venue, others may rely on more precise location information. Technologies like NFC and QR codes really only work on physical proximity and are used only for presence information. Due to the overhead of having to use an application they rarely offer frictionless experience making user adoption difficult.

However, Wi-Fi and BLE can be used for more detailed location information like we are used to from GPS. Compared to clunky QR codes or NFC applications, they also offer much better user experience.

BLE still requires an application on your phone to detect beacons installed throughout the venue, and managing all those beacons presents a different challenge altogether. While giving good location accuracy, BLE deployments may quickly become very difficult and expensive to manage. However, BLE can tell exactly where you are standing.

Wi-Fi location tracking on the other hand relies on the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure comprised of Wi-Fi access points and Wi-Fi devices. Accuracy of Wi-Fi location tracking strongly depends on the Wi-Fi network design and the software algorithms used in the background. Because Wi-Fi sensors often need to cover a larger area than BLE beacons, the location accuracy may vary and is also dependent on the changing RF environment.

While Wi-Fi may not always be able to accurately tell you where exactly it is you are standing, it will give good information about the wider environment as well as presence information.

Cost

Cost is always one of the deciding factors no matter what solution you deploy. Figuring out the cost of a location-tracking solution strongly depends on working out the requirements and expectations well in advance. That way you know what you are investing your money in and what you can expect from the investment.

Cost is often also inversely proportional to accuracy. In other words, you can always try to solve the issue later by throwing more money at it.

While the QR code and NFC approach may seem a bit clunky, they may be viable for some use cases especially due to a low price tag. The more advanced solutions however will probably comprise of either Wi-Fi or BLE, sometimes both.

A comprehensive location-based services strategy will take into account both active and passive tracking and will use the information about the specific environment and behavior to overcome any accuracy constraints.

Management, application cost, support, integration, design and accuracy all need to be taken into account, therefore highly integrated solutions providing both Wi-Fi and BLE capabilities with simple integration interfaces will be the most appropriate choices for a comprehensive location-based services strategy. 

Marko is the International Technical Training Lead at Aerohive Networks. He likes taking things apart and assembling them back together.