Lots of people are talking about BLE beacons and how they’re poised to revolutionize the consumer experience. But what exactly are BLE beacons? Are they the same thing as iBeacons? What do they do? We’ll answer all of those questions.

What is BLE?

First things first, BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy, which is the type of signal that BLE beacons transmit. Bluetooth itself has been around for years, but LE is a relatively recent advent. As the name implies, Bluetooth Low Energy uses significantly less energy than traditional Bluetooth. It’s therefore more efficient, and well-suited to remote or wireless applications.

What is a BLE beacon?

A beacon is basically a module that emits a constant BLE signal for other devices to detect. Beacons can only transmit; they do not receive signals or data from any devices.

Most beacons on the market are wireless, meaning they are powered by either a replaceable or rechargeable battery. Because BLE is power efficient, beacons can typically last up to two years on a single charge.

What is an iBeacon?

Apple is a major player in the BLE field, and its proprietary iBeacon has been the subject of much talk and, unfortunately, much misunderstanding.

First, iBeacon is not a BLE beacon. You cannot buy iBeacon from a store. Rather, iBeacon is the collection of protocols that govern BLE interactions with iOS 7 mobile devices. iBeacon is, like iOS, proprietary to Apple, which means that all of the developments with iBeacon are owned or licensed by Apple and operate on Apple’s newest mobile devices.

How does BLE interact with my device?

BLE signals can be received by any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Because beacons transmit only Bluetooth signals and do not receive any signals or data in return, the smartphone needs to also have an application that will read the signal and determine what action(s) to take based on what the signal itself is.

iOS devices have the benefit of iBeacon protocols, which automatically detect BLE signals and launch the relevant app(s). Android and other Bluetooth-enabled devices must actively scan for BLE signals, which means allowing an app to run in the background for as long as the user wants to receive BLE signals.

In short, Bluetooth-enabled smartphones can pick up signals from BLE beacons, then use apps to determine what they signify.

How does my app know what a beacon means?

Beacons transmit their unique IDs as part of their output. Apps are programmed to recognize BLE signals based on those unique IDs. When a smartphone receives a beacon signal, it checks whether any of the apps respond to that signal. If one does, then the app receives and interprets the signal.

Most apps are programmed to take a certain action, such as displaying a certain message, when they receive a signal with a specific ID. Messages can be stored on the phone or online.

How far do BLE signals reach?

Beacons can transmit signals spanning several feet. Many beacon-equipped retailers elect to use department-specific beacons with ranges tailored to the department’s borders on the store floor plan.