How virtualizing BLE Beacons will change the indoor mobile experience

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This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter’s approach.

Thanks to cellular GPS, the days of pulling your car over to ask for directions are long gone. It has never been easier to find your way from point A to B and to track down nearby points of interest like restaurants or gas stations.

But, what happens when you walk indoors? The “blue dot” navigation experience doesn’t exist. When inside a mall, conference center, or office complex, you are back to stopping and asking for turn-by-turn directions when needed. 

There is enormous demand for an indoor location experience that is on par with outdoor cellular GPS. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is an exciting technology that promises to satisfy this demand. The major mobile device manufacturers have put their weight behind BLE beaconing standards and a robust BLE ecosystem has emerged to develop indoor location solutions. But two things have held BLE indoor location services back to date:

  • The high cost of overlay networks.
  • Complicated deployment and operations.

These issues have primarily been due to the fact that BLE location services require the deployment of battery-powered physical beacons, which are difficult to deploy and manage.  Fortunately, the recent introduction of new virtual beacon technology changes all that. With virtualization, BLE location services are finally ready for mass market adoption. Here’s how.

Simplified deployments using virtual beacons

BLE physical beacons are small battery operated devices that are attached to a wall or ceiling, usually about 30-50 feet apart. They broadcast BLE signals typically at -10dBm to 4bdBm of power at intervals typically ranging from .1 to 10 beacons per second. Each physical beacon must be configured and mounted manually, with extensive site surveys required for proper placement and calibration.

They are powered by batteries that can last from months to years depending on usage (stronger signals and more frequent intervals result in lower battery lives). When the battery dies on these devices, they must be found and replaced. In large venues, this can be a challenging and expensive feat, especially if beacons were lost or moved (intentionally or otherwise). For these reasons, many companies have shied away from using physical battery beacons, which has hampered the widespread deployment of BLE.

Converging BLE functionality into existing Wi-Fi networks and virtualizing the physical beacon functionality allows companies to bring indoor location functionality to their business and customers. In other words, BLE broadcast functions are moved into the standard IT infrastructure – i.e. BLE antenna are added to a Wi-Fi Access Point or deployed as a dedicated BLE-only “beacon point” that are mounted on the celling and powered via Ethernet, eliminating the need for wall-mounted beacons with batteries. These Access/Beacon Points leverage directional antennas powered by a single Bluetooth transmitter sending unique RF energy in multiple directions.

These beacon points create a flashlight-like beam with more energy pushed in front of the directional antenna than out the back or to the sides. The energy forms power distribution much like an ellipse. A probability weight is then assigned to each point in the location map. The further the expected signal strength from the measured signal strength, the lower the probability the device is at that location. By combining and then analyzing probability surfaces for every directional beam, the most likely location of a device is determined with exceptional accuracy.

Unsupervised machine learning in the cloud eliminates site surveys and ensures consistent user experience across mobile devices and space; the RF environment is constantly learned in real time. RF models (e.g. path loss formulas) are constantly updated in accordance with environmental changes, eliminating the need for site surveys and manual calibration while maximizing BLE performance.

With BLE broadcast functions moved into Access/Beacon Points and location services handled in the cloud, there is no longer a need for physical BLE beacons. Virtual beacons can be added and moved anywhere on a floor using a software UI or programmable workflows. Power and interval settings can be configured and adjusted remotely (see figure below). In addition, different organizations can manage and operate their own beacons in the same venue, with an unlimited number of beacons available for deployment.

Virtual beacon MIST

 Power and interval settings for virtual beacons can be configured and adjusted remotely. 

In summary, virtual beacons offer many advantages over physical beacons, which include:

  • No batteries.
  • Beacons are easy to setup and move.
  • No risk of loss or theft or movement from a beacon’s original position.
  • Building aesthetics are not affected by the deployment of physical devices.
  • Virtual beacons are stackable so different applications and tenants can get different messages.
  • No site surveys or ongoing calibration required.

Do virtual beacons eliminate the need entirely for physical BLE beacons? While this is possible in theory, physical beacons still make sense in areas that are hard to reach from traditional WLAN access points. For example, rooms with high ceilings (like an atrium) still benefit form physical beacons, as do outdoor facilities or very high density environments that require accuracy within one to three meters.

BLE has the ability to deliver amazing new indoor location-based experiences that are on par with outdoor GPS. By converging it with Wi-Fi and using machine learning in the cloud to optimize location performance, BLE is easier than ever to deploy. In addition, beacons can now be virtualized for simple moves, adds and changes with no costly site surveys or manual calibration.

The world is ready for new indoor location experiences. With virtual BLE, mass market adoption is just a few clicks away.

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