Apple iBeacons Explained – Smart Home Occupancy Sensing Solved?

Mote iBeacon from Estimote

Reliable occupancy sensing has long been the bane of the home automator.  A PIR detects if someone moves, but once they sit down to watch TV they disappear.  If you are trying to switch off lights automatically in unoccupied areas then you can soon run into problems.  How many of us recognise the ‘wave your hands in the air to make the lights come back on’ scenario!

Our recent move to Indigo home automation software showed us there’s already some imaginative work being done here.  Two Indigo add-ons use the presence of a smartphone on your home’s Wi-Fi network as an indication that an individual is present (check out the Smartphone Radar and Fing plugins).

But how about going a step further.  How about using our smartphones to tell which room we’re in, not just which house.  What we need is more than just geofencing, we need a high resolution ‘interior GPS’ for some indoor mapping.

At Apple’s iOS 7 announcement back in June there was the briefest of glimpses of a new SDK feature on one of their slides called “iBeacons”.

iBeacons Revealed at WWDCThe system relies on Bluetooth Low Energy devices (also know as BLE, Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart) for calculating micro location data employing little 2.4Mhz transmitters at key locations around a building.  Your smartphone or other device automatically picks up the signal from these iBeacons and can calculate relative position or trigger contextual actions.  There’s still next to no information available on Apple’s main website but here’s a quote from their developer section….

iBeacon, a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby iOS 7 devices of their presence, provides apps a whole new level of location awareness, such as trail markers in a park, exhibits in a museum, or product displays in stores.

While the majority of chatter has been about iBeacon implementation in the retail/payments and interactive tours sectors there are certainly interesting applications for the smart home.

Apple is expected to make the iBeacon protocol public soon but in the meantime there are commercially available hardware units on sale already.  An example is the ‘mote’ from Estimote, another tech startup from Poland.  A quick search turned up a schematic and downloadable firmware for this DIY iBeacon too.  Both these units will be able to run for more than 2 years on a single coin cell battery.

Bluetooth Smart

We found the video below which appears to be an Apple briefing to developers on the new iBeacon features.  From it we learn that when your iBeacon aware app is in the background it can perform “Region Monitoring”, presumably a less granular location service.  When the app is in the foreground or when you wake your iPhone then Apple’s Core Location service can use “Ranging” for a more accurate estimate of how far you are away from the nearest beacon.  This is based on signal strength and the results will put your location relative to the beacon into one of these three states – Immediate (approx 10 centimetres away), Near (approx 2 – 3 metres away), Far (approx 5 – 70 metres away).  CoreMotion also takes advantage of the new M7 chip inside the latest iPhone 5s.

But what about the majority of the worlds smartphone users that are carrying Android handsets?  While Google have been betting on Near Field Communication (NFC) up to now, they’ve added native support for BLE to the latest Android version 4.3.  But this will need work before it has the equivalent of the iOS7 features.  While iBeacons aren’t as cheap as NFC tags they are affordable – the Estimote units mentioned above are currently selling for around £60 for a set of three and who knows how low this can drop over time.

Any compatible Bluetooth LE iPhone or iPad can be a iBeacon transmitter too and Apple has already begun using one implementation of BLE iBeacons with the new ‘bump‘ setup for the Apple TV.  This shows how the system can mimic some of NFC’s proximity features as well as offer a much greater variety of functions – all from a single technology.  Googles superiority in cloud services isn’t in doubt though, so if it can get a competing system off the ground and can link it to an interior version of the ubiquitous Google Maps then it would be a major threat to the Apple system.

If it all works out then it’s possible to see a time in the future where you could walk out of one room, have your TV show paused and as you walk into the next room have it continue on from where you left off.  Energy savings from automated lighting and heating would be a big area of interest too but the logic required for this sort of thing isn’t as trivial as it might seem.  That said, companies like Idratek are working on the sorts of algorithms that could use iBeacons to produce these intelligent and autonomous actions.

There are bound to be issues here though.  Will the system think you are in the lounge when you’re actually in the bedroom above or the kitchen next door?  Will merely adding more iBeacons round the home increase accuracy and solve this issue?  What about enrolling visitors to the house onto the system?  What if we leave our phone in one room and walk to another (if only Apple was developing a wearable device, like a watch or something).  And won’t this all just turn into a new vector for spam, with a new ad pinging us every time we walk past a shop?

The new 802.11ah Wi-Fi standard is due in 2015 / 2016 which has been designed to support the sort of sensor networks suited to Home Automation.  Will this provide a multitude of ‘free’ beacons built into our Internet of Things for a more accurate triangulation setup?  We’ll know more about iBeacons by this time next year, but whatever happens it’s clear there are interesting times ahead. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

apple.com   :   bluetooth.org   :   estimote.com   :   gelosite.com

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9 Responses to “Apple iBeacons Explained – Smart Home Occupancy Sensing Solved?”

  1. In my view, this would be an excellent scenario for something like an ‘iWatch’ (with bluetooth 4.0). If I still have to carry my phone to every room, this won’t work. A watch however, would really go everywhere I go. I’m curious to learn how precise these devices can get. Detecting occupancy is one thing, but from there you could take it further. It could turn on a reading light when you sit in a specific chair, as opposed to a different light when at your desk. Or send a notification to your phone asking whether you would like to see a movie when in front of the tv, and then let e.g. Indigo start the tv, the movie, adjust the lights etc etc etc

  2. The only reliable occupancy sensor is when you sense something that emanates from the human. Not a gadget he wears or carries.

    IMO.

  3. Do you think these will be “open” so that they can be used outside the Apple ecosystem? I’m thinking of applications like central heating control, turning heat up or down based on presence.

  4. Open would be good.

    Actual shipping plug and play products would be nice though…

  5. I have been playing with Geofencing quite a bit over the past year and managed to implement several very useful features in my home including:
    - Automatic arming of the burglar alarm (when all smart phones are more than 0.5 miles away)
    - Heating switch to holiday mode (when all smart phones are more than 50 miles away)

    I would disagree with Juha and say that iBeacons are a brilliant tool for advanced occupancy sensing. Of course a sensor that picks up a human reliably would be great, but in the mean time this does the job very nicely. Most of us have their phones on them at all times and I have been waiting for more information on iBeacons.

    Thanks Mark. This has given me something to do as the evenings get darker :)

  6. I think this is definitely a step in the right direction. Many people carry their phone with them, so it’s not a difficult habit to get into carrying it around the house and see lights and even doors open for you.

    It’s a shame this is still early days.

    Another contender for this could be in the form of the Samsung Gear, which is a wearable device.

  7. Well of course the openning paragraph description was made redundant by IDRATEK over 10 years ago! Occupancy detection as opposed to motion detection no problem. Personalised detection – yes that’s another matter. Do you carry your phone on you at all times? Not always. From our many years of experience we know that when you start to genuinely rely on HA for automation as opposed to remote control then people get irritated even if the system gets things wrong once a month. Which is not to say that even limited reliability information cannot enhance some functions but as I say – be pragmatic.

  8. I am always leaving my phone on the wireless charging pad in my kitchen and almost never carry the phone around my home all the time. This is nonsense. I mean, yes, there could be people that are attached hard to their phones but this is just a fraction on all cell phone users.

  9. I learned long ago that just because something is possible is not justification to do it. Having lights blink on and off as they follow you from room to room is total nonsense. Please recall from the light bulb box that at 3 hours per day your total annual cost is less than x dollars per year where x is about the same a fast-food hamburger. And talk of doing the same thing with your furnace? My house has a bit of thermal inertia which would render that idea absurd. But one touch of my wall prog thermostat lets the furnace know that there is still human intelligence in charge.