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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Wi-Fi Aware Raises Beacon Challenge Steven Keeping

The Wi-Fi Alliance is trying to grab a share of the booming beacon market. (Courtesy: Estimote)


Until now, Bluetooth® Smart has largely had a free run as the preferred communication technology for beacons – compact wireless proximity sensors that transmit a short-range radio signal advertising their position which can be picked up by compatible smartphones.

Bluetooth Smart is the low energy form of Bluetooth (engineers generally still refer to it as “Bluetooth low energy”) interoperable with the chips in smartphones and tablets, but which trades bandwidth for much low power consumption than its bigger brother. That makes it pretty much perfect for beacon applications because the devices must be cheap, compact and feature long battery life.

Relative lack of bandwidth is no impediment either, because the beacon does no more than send a short message advertising its position. The heavy lifting is done by the smartphone that picks up the beacon’s signal. Because the smartphone can only detect a beacon when in close proximity, its location is effectively determined. Consumers that have, for example, opted-in to the beacon owner’s location-based commerce scheme - by downloading an app and ensuring the Bluetooth capability of their smartphone is switched on – then find their handset takes over by displaying information relevant to the user’s position. Such information then, local to the beacon, might include directions and timings departing flights, advice on public transport delays or a discount on burger and fries from the adjacent fast food joint.

The beacon market is small but expanding. And, say analysts, it’s set to explode. According to analyst Business Insider, for example, the installed base for beacons will consist of 4.5 million active units by year end 2018, with 3.5 million of these in use by retailers. The company also noted that 85 of the top 100 U.S. retailers will have installed beacon systems by the end of 2016. That’s whetted the Bluetooth vendors’ collective appetites and companies such as Broadcom, Nordic Semiconductor and Texas Instruments have wasted no time in bringing out chips, development kits and reference designs for beacon solutions.

But the Wi-Fi Alliance, a grouping of companies set up to promote Wi-Fi, and including Apple, Cisco, Comcast, Dell, Samsung and Sony, is determined that Bluetooth Smart won’t have things all its own way in the beacon sector. The alliance has recently introduced Wi-Fi Aware, a technology that extends Wi-Fi’s capabilities with “a real-time and energy-efficient discovery mechanism that provides an immediate on-ramp to rich here-and-now experiences.” That’s beacon proximity services to you and me.

Until Wi-Fi Aware appeared, Wi-Fi-equipped devices couldn’t say anything to each other before making a power-hungry connection - which restricted Wi-Fi’s use as a beacon technology. But with Wi-Fi Aware on the scene, devices can swap short messages about their services when they detect each other and before (if ever) committing to a more formal connection. The alliance claims, just as with Bluetooth Smart, that battery life isn’t compromised because the initial “handshake” transfers little data and is over quickly.

The two technologies have clashed before and each responded by improving its offering: Bluetooth technology became faster and the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced Wi-Fi Direct, a wireless technology that allowed devices to communicate without the services of a wireless access point. Both continued to thrive and the consumer was the winner.

Wi-Fi Aware is late to the beacon party and Bluetooth Smart’s advantages – a large installed base in smartphones, modest power consumption, and bi-directional capability among others – and it will be tough to overturn. One can’t help thinking that in this case, a non-adversarial approach might best serve the Wi-Fi Alliance’s agenda. After all, the market will likely be big enough for everyone to take a decent slice. For example, Bluetooth Smart could continue to power hundreds of inexpensive beacons around retail stores (facilitating fine-grained proximity services) while Wi-Fi (from the beacon owner’s already-installed infrastructure) could then take over to download the contextual content once the smartphone’s location has been determined. For the retailer, such an arrangement would cut down on the amount of expensive and power-hungry Wi-Fi hubs required, while consumers’ benefits would extend to saving some data quota for another day, and receiving location-based services even when cellular coverage is non-existent.

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Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.

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