Apple iBeacons Explained – Smart Home Occupancy Sensing Solved?
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!
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”.
The 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.
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.