Retail, Out-Of-Home Media, Venues & Events, Hospitality

To BLE or not BLE – Bluetooth Beacons or Geofences?

Congratulations you’ve launched your mobile app! But you want to enhance the functionality with location-based trigger messages or other location-specific app features. On today’s mobile platforms, you have two primary options when choosing to enable location features in your application geofencing and Bluetooth beacons. Bluetooth beacons are getting a lot of attention these days but when a geofence fits, wear it.

What is a geofence?

What is a Geofence

A geofence is a virtual fence around a given geographic area. The geofence information is used by mobile devices to trigger events when an app in a mobile device breaches the fence. (Please Note: Users need to be opted-in via an app to receive these notifications) For instance when someone device comes within 100 meters of the latitude and longitude representing the center of your building, using cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS, the device will deliver an ‘Arrival’ event to that geofence. Once the opted-in user’s mobile device leaves the geofence, the device delivers a ‘Departure’ event from the geofence. For an optimal user experience, it’s best to use passive, ambient geofences that can run in the background and wake in opted-in user’s devices when they breach a geofence.

Beacons

A beacon is a BTLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) hardware device that broadcasts a non-pairing signal that apps that users opt-in to, in mobile devices can listen for. When the mobile device ‘sees’ the beacon, it is communicated to the application. Think of it like the beacon simply broadcasting, “here I am” over and over again. When the mobile device receives this signal, it can determine the strength of the signal and roughly translate it into a general distance to the beacon.

Comparison

Beacon vs. Geofence
Use Cases

When determining whether to go with a geofence or beacons, a good rule would be to think of geofences when the objective of a use case is to interact with users at a macro level in a designated area down to 50 meters and beacons for micro-location in a designated area from 50 meters down to inches. Below is a list of some common scenarios and what the optimum solution might be.

Use Cases for Beacons and Geofence

 

If the scenario needs to determine tight proximity the beacon is a better choice if you’re looking at a larger area you’d use a geofence. Beacons require hardware, installation and maintenance that makes them more involved to implement than geofences, but when determining tight proximity it is important to go with beacons.

The Stadium Case Uses Both

There are some cases where you’d use a combination. For instance, if you are developing an app to use at a sports stadium. At a stadium, there are use cases that could leverage both geofences and beacons. For instance:

Stadium Use Case

Conclusion

App Integration

Now that you’ve decided when you will use geofences and/or beacons you will have to figure out how to integrate those features into your application. For a small number, the answers are relatively straight forward. The Gimbal Manager allows for easy configuration of both geofences and beacons in the cloud, and the Android/iOS SDK interfaces are very straightforward in notifying your application of the events.

Gimbal also creates a concept called a “Place” that gives you the ability to group geofences and beacons that make the SDK integration simpler; as you do not need to make a distinction between them in your application, if you choose not to. At a high level, we just call your app back with arrival and departure events.

Scaling

If you have a larger set of beacons and geofences, you will need the ability to scale and maintain them. For enterprise use cases where hundreds or even thousands of geofences may be needed it’s important to use a platform that allow for an unlimited number of geofences and the ability to draw both polygonal and radial perimeters with no maximum size limit. Gimbal excels here.

Our SDK’s are optimized to handle a large number of Places and does not change regardless of numbers. On The Gimbal Manager there are bulk capabilities and REST APIs to make the creation and management simple and automated if you choose.

In subsequent articles, we will discuss additional cloud configuration features that allow constant change to geofences, beacons, and your application configuration to be completely managed from the cloud with no application changes or upgrades. Stay tuned.

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Gary Damm

Gary is Senior Director of Engineering at Gimbal. He writes about Gimbal's industry-leading beacon technology.

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