AH Tech Talk: Google Introduces Eddystone Bluetooth Beacons

Context aware systems, such as Google Now and indeed a number of Internet-of-Things (IoT) ideas, need to be aware of a number of pieces of information. Typically, these include the day, date and time, if you are moving and of course, where you are. As such, modern smartphones (and to a lesser degree, tablets) contain a number of sensors that are used for location sensing purposes. These sensors can include GPS / GLONASS chipsets, which can in theory locate the device down to within a few metres providing they have line of sight to at least four satellites. GPS systems in smartphones are typically aGPS, or assisted GPS; this technology works by using one or more sensors in order to pre-determine the likely location of the device and so set up the GPS system to look for particular satellites that a cloud based computer platform believes the device will be able to see. Typically, aGPS uses information provided by the cellular mast or masts that the device can see (Android can currently only use one mast's data), a barometer (for measuring the likely altitude) and WiFi, as many WiFi routers' locations are known to aGPS cloud based systems.

However, masts can have a range of several kilometres, WiFi of a hundred metres give or take and if you are indoors, or your device is effectively in the shadow of tall buildings (such as in a city). Or perhaps whatever context-aware application or service your smartphone is using requires a more accurate location and waiting for the GPS system to acquire a satellite fix is not an option (GPS and GLONASS chipsets are notoriously greedy when it comes to battery power). Imagine the scenario when you are heading to the bus stop in heavy rain and your bus is arriving: wouldn't it be great if your e-ticket, kept on your smartphone or smartwatch, was ready when you get on the bus? This scenario requires a faster and more accurate way to locate your device and Google are implementing a system designed for such a scenario: the Eddystone open Bluetooth Low Energy beacon format.

Beacons by design are meant to be discoverable by a nearby Bluetooth Smart Device, in this case using Bluetooth Low Energy technology (also known as Bluetooth Smart). This can place your device within a few metres of the sensor. Google's Eddystone technology uses an open standard to make it easy for developers to add meaningful location data to both applications and to Google services. Google is designing the technology to support multiple platforms (currently at least Android and iOS) and addresses security concerns, too, via a technology called Ephemeral Identifiers, or EIDs. EIDs will only allow authorized clients to decode the messages, which shores up the security. Google's example of a more secure use for the technology is finding luggage at an airport or your lost keys. The EID specifications are showing as "coming soon."

Another advantage of the Eddystone technology is that an existing Bluetooth Low Energy beacon may be made compliant with a firmware upgrade. Google are working with hardware partners to certify BLE beacons as Eddystone compliant and their blog cites that there are a number of models already available. Google have also already thought of a way to help businesses manage their portfolio of beacons via the Eddystone-TLM telemetry management solution; this will help businesses provide the necessary diagnostic technology monitor beacon's battery health and location.

Google have also implemented Eddystone technology into Google Services; it's included in Google Maps (currently only deployed in Portland as part of Google Maps' transit system). Google Now will shortly be upgraded to make use of the more detailed location information available - and because of how Now is a cloud based system, once the technology is implemented at the cloud side it will very quickly be live for all Now customers. Eddystone technology should play a huge role in the explosion of Internet-of Things, because the granular location data available will help automated systems pinpoint the device's precise location (which may not be the smartphone but may be a wearable piece of technology) and allow finer control of lights, door locks, thermostats and similar. And best of all, Eddystone is an open platform, which doesn't suffer from the same walled garden problem that Apple's iBeacon technology suffers from: not everybody has or wants an iPhone.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.
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