Google today launched Eddystone, a new open format for Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) beacons to communicate with people’s devices. To help developers build apps using this technology, Google is also debuting APIs and updating its various mobile services. Last but not least, Google is also offering a way to manage a fleet of beacons efficiently.
Electronic beacons have many uses, but Google is most interested in how they can be used to give mobile apps more functionality. They can provide precise location and contextual cues: A beacon can label a bus stop so your phone gets your ticket ready, or a museum app can give you more information about the exhibit you’re looking at.
Eddystone is Google’s attempt to build a new class of beacons that address real-world use cases, cross-platform support, and security. Eddystone supports multiple frame types, allows versioning to make introducing new functionality easier, and works with any platform that can communicate with BLE beacons (including Android and iOS).
Cross-platform support is of course very important, as the technology needs to work with a multitude of devices. Google is making Eddystone available on GitHub under the open-source Apache v2.0 license.
So how will Google make money off this new initiative? For now at least, the company isn’t talking about using beacons to send contextually relevant ads to your mobile device.
“Eddystone is an open, BLE beacon format so that manufacturers and developers alike can access, comment, and contribute to it,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat. “We don’t have any plans to monetize this. It’s meant for widespread adoption and establishing common ground for people to build upon.”
While beacons are meant to be discoverable by any nearby Bluetooth device via a public signal, Eddystone features Ephemeral Identifiers (EIDs) that change frequently and allow only authorized clients to decode them (technical specs to be published “soon”). Google offers two examples: EIDs mean you can securely find your lost keys, or even track your luggage once you get off a plane.
APIs and Google services
Google’s Eddystone pitch to developers is simple: better semantic context and precise location. Google is thus launching the Nearby API for Android and iOS, the Proximity Beacon API, and updates for a slew of its existing services.
The Nearby API makes it easier for apps to find and communicate with nearby devices and beacons to provide better context. Developers can, for example, target a specific bus stop or a particular art exhibit in a museum.
It’s worth noting that Nearby isn’t specific to beacons. It uses a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and inaudible sound (using a device’s speaker and microphone) to establish proximity. Nearby technology is part of several Google products, including Chromecast Guest Mode, Nearby Players in Google Play Games, and Google Tone.
The Nearby Messages API is available to all developers across Android and iOS devices with the latest release of Google Play services 9.8. The first time an app calls Nearby, users get a permission dialog to grant that app access, no Google account required.
The Proximity Beacon API lets developers associate semantic location and related data with beacons. This API will also extend existing location APIs, Google said, such as the next version of its Places API.
A lot of this was technically possible before, but developers had to do a lot of the legwork. As Google product manager Matthew Kulick told VentureBeat, the company is trying to support developers to make working with beacons much easier.
Google’s own products and services are going to be augmented with beacons. In fact, this is how the company first tested if beacon technology was worth investing in.
Earlier this year, Google Maps gained beacon-based transit notifications in Portland. You can expect that this faster access to real-time transit schedules at specific stations will be expanded to more cities and countries.
Furthermore, Google Now will soon be able to use this contextual information to help prioritize the most relevant cards. Google’s example is showing you menu items when you’re inside a restaurant, so given the fact that Google Now is embracing third-party apps, it’s easy to see how developers could one day leverage this integration.
Manufacturers and business
Eddystone’s frame formats allow beacon manufacturers to support multiple mobile platforms and application scenarios with a single piece of hardware. An existing BLE beacon can be made Eddystone compliant with a simple firmware update (as long as it’s a BLE beacon, it can become an Eddystone beacon).
Google plans to introduce an Eddystone certification process “in the near future.” The company is working with hardware manufacturing partners that have already built Eddystone-compliant beacons.
Businesses will be able to secure and manage their beacon fleet so they can validate their beacon-assisted apps and deploy beacons at scale (Google is hoping for not just transit stations, but bigger hardware installations like stadiums). Beacons can be monitored as long as they implement Eddystone’s telemetry frame (EddystoneTLM) and the Proximity Beacon API’s diagnostic endpoint. That means you can track battery health and displacement for individual beacons to figure out which ones are working and which ones are broken or missing.
Google is embracing beacons
Google wants to build an Eddystone ecosystem. That includes app developers and beacon manufacturers, but because this is an open format, the company is hoping for anyone and everyone to partake.
Google is eating its own dogfood too. Even the company’s Physical Web project will be using Eddystone beacons to broadcast URLs that help people interact with their surroundings.
“The best ideas won’t come from just one company,” Google has declared. Indeed, as engineering director Chandu Thota told us, this is Google’s first big push into beacon technology. In other words, this is just version 1.0. You can expect a lot more where Eddystone came from.