Myths about BLE

Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, is touted to be many things: the future of retail, the death of NFC, the new customer experience. But what’s fact and what’s fiction? HMS brings you the details.

Myth: BLE beacons are automatically detected by all nearby Bluetooth devices.

It’s sometimes assumed that any Bluetooth-enabled device will automatically detect and recognize a BLE signal, which would imply that they can pass by any beacon and determine what action to perform.

Truth: BLE beacons can only be detected by Bluetooth devices that are actively or passively listening for signals.

BLE beacons always transmit signals, but a device can only detect these signals in certain situations:

  1. Bluetooth is enabled on the device, and the device has an app that is programmed to look for that beacon’s unique signal and the app is currently running.
  2. Bluetooth is enabled on the device, and the device is operating on iOS 7 and iBeacon detects the signal, then launches the relevant app.

In either case, the device will not do anything with a BLE signal unless it has an app that is programmed to perform some action when it detects that signal.

Myth: BLE beacons send messages to devices.

Because beacons are used to trigger messages or actions on devices, it’s often assumed that the data to be displayed is broadcast by the beacon itself.

Truth: BLE beacons send signals to devices, and the signals tell apps to retrieve messages or take actions.

A BLE beacon is simply a device that transmits a constant BLE signal in a radius. It doesn’t send anything other than a signal with some identifying information.

When a device detects a BLE transmission (see above) and sends it to the relevant app, the app interprets the unique signal and then performs an action. Typically, this action is displaying a message or prompting an acknowledgement from the user. The app either has this information stored in local memory or retrieves it from an online source.

Myth: BLE beacons can pinpoint a smartphone’s location.

There’s some excitement, and some concern, over the idea that beacons could be used to precisely locate a shopper standing on any given floor tile. Such a capability would allow beacons to be used for applications such as determining a customer’s place in line.

Truth: BLE beacons do not have any location recognition protocols.

BLE beacons only transmit signals. Bluetooth-enabled smartphones can measure the strength of a given BLE signal and determine the approximate distance between the source and the phone, but they cannot pinpoint the location of the signal, nor can the beacon pinpoint the location of the phone.

BLE operates on relatively broad distance indicators. iBeacon protocols, for example, gauge whether a beacon is close, near, or far from the device. No beacon can give an exact location for a device, and no device can pinpoint its location using only a BLE signal.

Myth: iBeacon is Apple’s version of the standard BLE beacon

Given the terms involved, many of the people following the BLE discussion may be led to believe that iBeacons are simply Apple’s off-the-shelf beacon product.

Truth: iBeacon is not a physical device; it is Apple’s set of BLE protocols.

iBeacon is part of Apple’s iOS 7 operating system, which comes standard on the newest iPhones and iPads. It isn’t downloadable software, nor is it a physical product.

iBeacon allows Apple mobile devices to automatically detect BLE signals, identify them, and pass them to the relevant apps. It even allows the OS to launch those apps if they aren’t currently running.

For more information about iBeacon, check out our iBeacon FAQ page

Myth: BLE can completely replace NFC.

BLE is being touted as the death of NFC because it seems to operate on the same principles, just on a larger scale.

Truth: BLE and NFC are very different technologies with suitably different functions.

BLE beacons can transmit signals over a small area, allowing customers with Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and the appropriate apps to detect them. The apps identify the signals and then execute different commands based on which signal was received. BLE is passive; the signals are transmitted constantly and simply received by the end user. The user doesn’t have to take any special actions to receive notifications (other than enabling Bluetooth and launching the appropriate app). Because BLE has a comparatively large range (as far as NFC is concerned), and because it works passively, it is the more ideal technology for sending mass notifications to people in an area.

NFC devices can both transmit and receive signals, meaning NFC can be used in two-way communication. NFC is a more active technology; the signals are only transmitted when prompted by an action from the end user. The user has to engage an NFC device to start an interaction. Because NFC has a very very short range, and because it is action-oriented, it is the more ideal technology for secure interactions like payments.

For more information on BLE and NFC, check out our BLE and NFC articles.

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