Eddystone-URL Beacons – How I Did it



 
I am cursed with the tractor pull of early, early adoption. QR codes lured me in several years ago and this summer it was the turn of the iBeacon. When Apple released these BluetoothLE (low energy) radio transmitters in 2013 they were programmed to communicate with a custom app that visitors to Apple retail stores were encouraged to install on their iPhones. Developers quickly jumped on the opportunity, writing custom apps for other retailers and verticals and the numbers began to grow explosively.

But until July of 2015 beacons needed apps like plants need water. Then Google introduced an open source, cross platform alternative to iBeacon, which they named “Eddystone” after a famous lighthouse in the British Isles. The killer aspect of Eddystone is its ability to broadcast a simple web address, a single url that opens up the power of the Internet to every inexpensive little beacon transmitter. Virtually all beacon hardware can be made to work with either standard, or both.

I was reading everything I could find on the beacosphere, trying to cement my understanding, collect use cases and ultimately to move from an intellectual sense of the opportunities to an operator’s experience of the end-to-end reality of beacons in use.

I selected beaconstac in India as my starting point for the hands-on phase of my journey, and ordered their starter kit for USD $79. (A terrific chat support guy named Dan in NYC made the decision for me.) It included three beacons, an app and a cloud platform. It promised a demo that would open on my smartphone and simulate the experience of entering the proximity zone of a beacon in a retail environment, to show me a deal on shoes.
shoes
It didn’t work and the beacons were not Eddystone compliant. But to their credit, after trying for several weeks to patch their app to talk to my Sony Xperia Z3 they sent me a free, Eddystone replacement kit.

In the meantime I had discovered the manufacturer of the beaconstac hardware, Sensoro of Beijing. Sensoro was running a sale on the identical 4AA beacons, for USD $10 each. I ordered two and installed their app for Android. In a very short time I had discovered how to program them to broadcast simple urls, selecting cnn.com and cbc.com because they were well within the 17-character limit for length of url. I installed an app called the “Physical Web”. When I pull down my notification screen I see a message about two beacons being nearby. When I click that message I see the links I created.
my_beacons_in_notification

The Physical Web app will I believe become ubiquitous in our physical environment. You will see the distinctive logo on shop doors and street signs, to alert you to the presence of contextual content. From an apartment for rent to a concert announcement and anything in between, links to available web pages will present themselves if you request them.

My accomplishment as described above wasn’t as straightforward as it might sound. I stumbled down the road of discovery. The key was my finding that the Sensoro app included its own QR code scanner, for use on the QR code printed on the side of every one of their beacons. Scanning it brought up the beacon settings and the offer to edit them. Here I could enter my url of choice, save and exit. I tried to use the same approach to programming the three identical beacons from the replacement starter kit and hit a roadblock. I’d scan the QR code, select “Edit” and be presented with a login screen asking for a password.
beaconstac_eddystone

It was many days later that I realized I was looking at the essential security feature that prevents all of us from freely changing other people’s content, by editing their beacons.

This requirement for basic security is what forces us to select a supplier and use their software to program our beacons. No matter how far from Mumbai or Beijing my beacons may travel, their supplier knows where they are and how they’re set. That’s what allows them to permit me to make my edits, but not someone who cannot identify himself to their platform. Every beacon has a UUID, a universally unique ID as original as a fingerprint.

So now let me share with you last night’s inspiration. Not everyone controls web space and is capable of creating content to link to a url that their personal beacon can then broadcast. But virtually everyone has a device that will shoot video and virtually everyone can upload that video to YouTube and use the YouTube url to link it to a beacon. So whether you want to sell your car (parked with a beacon inside and the Physical Web logo on the window) or advertise a local event in a friendly storefront, creating the message and making it available just got pretty darn easy. And it’s just as easy to change the message by creating a new one and using the url YouTube provides. There’s no arguing that most of us haven’t had a live beacon experience yet but that will change quickly as the Chrome browser for Android, the Opera browser and more options for receiving notifications natively expand. Beacons just offer too much in too many directions not to get huge. From tracking lost pets to delivering audible messages to the visually impaired, beacons can do what hasn’t been possible until now.

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Hands-on with Eddystone-URL


I don’t recall the first time I saw a website address, but I do recall where I first saw an icon describing the Physical Web.

Physical Web Logo

It was displayed on a glass door on the front of a restaurant – in a video telling the story of how the physical world and the digital world are being linked by something called the Eddystone BluetoothLE (BLE) beacon.

Beacons

A beacon is a small device built to emit a bluetooth radio signal repeatedly, like a lighthouse beam. The LE part refers to low energy, the secret strength of the technology, because it allows battery-powered beacons to operate for practical periods of time, from many months to several years. Your smart device is the target of these radio signals and until recently, you had to have installed an app that understood the beacon’s specific message to close the loop.

Eddystone Beacons

In the summer of 2015 Google changed all that by creating an open source, cross platform approach that gives beacons the ability to broadcast simple web URLs. What receives those broadcasts depends for the short term on your device type (iOS or Android) and your browser of choice. IOS users can receive URL broadcasts on the Chrome for iOS browser. Android users have a few choices, from the latest version of the Opera browser to an app called the Physical Web and soon to include the Chrome for Android browser. And incidentally, Eddystone is the name of a famous lighthouse in the British Isles.

What to Expect

I was hooked on the promise of beacons long before I handled one, and being hands-on has only deepened my sense that this is life-changing stuff. From advertising an apartment for rent to delivering audible information and directions to the visually impaired the Physical Web creates smart places and smart things. Importantly, it delivers only what we ask for, no buzzing in your pocket or opening an app on your phone. When you enter an area where the Physical Web has content available you might pull down your notification screen to explore it – or not. The choice is always yours. In some places you might see a list of website addresses with a bit of descriptive text, looking like this:

PhysicalWebScreen

This approach doesn’t spell the end of app development. Rather it provides a practical alternative for the many things we would welcome access to without having to install an app we might use only rarely. And I’m living proof that you don’t have to be a developer to create your own content, and change it at will. I have a small collection of Eddystone beacons, purchased in the fall of 2015. It took some trial and error but I have programmed URLs, one per beacon is the current limit, and then seen them broadcast to my Smartphone. This image shows two detected beacons with URLs I set for them:

my_beacons_in_notification

This screen appears in my Sony Xperia Z3 when I select a link in my Notifications screen, advising that there are beacons near me. At time of writing I have three beacons set with the Eddystone-URL frame type. These two were purchased direct from Sensoro in China. The third is one of three from Beaconstac in India, supplied by Sensoro. It remains programmed with its own url and I’ve been unable to alter it due to a settings problem I’m working on. My reason for describing the situation is that when I get notifications, they are always separate, one as above and the other linking only to the Beaconstac Eddystone unit. Clearly being hands-on means digging deeper. I don’t know how often the advertising interval delivers a push to the Notifications screen or whether that is a parameter I am able to set.

Many people are rightly concerned about security on their mobile devices, and so of course is Google. What you see in your notification screen is a proxy of the sites available. You are not linking directly to any of them. Only when you select one is your device connected to the web and to the specific site selected.

beacon2phone2web-Chrome_with_proxy600

Beacon manufacturers and the developers who work with their hardware are aware of the threat of hackers discovering a way to “spoof” a beacon, hiding bad stuff under a reputable address and new versions of develop kits often include increased protections. While I’ve seen no guarantees that hacking is impossible, Google’s @ScottJenson, their man on the Eddystone file, seems pretty confident that security is tight.

Use Case

The scope of use cases already identified is remarkable and growing constantly. One that I’m evaluating is the creation of beacon networks. Imagine a grocer offering advertising on a beacon in the breakfast aisle or a liquor store selling beacon access to a wine brand, or a commercial neighbourhood “renting” beacon access to restaurants, stores and attractions. All any user needs is content behind a URL. Of course there will be large players, already are large players, assembling networks in shopping malls to name one growing area of commerce, but perhaps there’s a place for ingenious little guys too? Time will tell.

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Beacons Bridge the Digital & Real Worlds


Twenty years ago I saw my first billboard displaying a World Wide Web address. Not surprisingly, I was in San Francisco. About 10 years later many of us were visiting that web from mobile devices without wired connections, often accompanied by a cup of coffee. Search got dramatically better when we were able to disclose our location to Google and to apps like Facebook and Foursquare, among others.

Mobile devices enabled with BluetoothLE radio transmitters can sense the proximity of devices called beacons, and receive a transmission from them. Putting aside the science for the moment, let’s explore the possibilities this creates – and they are extraordinary.

Proximity Targeting

At this time it is possible for something you carry to detect a signal from both stationary and moving objects equipped with the BluetoothLE radio transmitter, a tiny device requiring little power, and able to wake up an app, or simply offer a connection you may accept or ignore. Both approaches involve permission. In the case of the app, you gave it when you agreed to install it, although agreeing to provide your location may be a separate step. The alternative case involves choosing to see what is available around you. In this illustration, the transmitter offers a menu, each item on which was created by an individual who wants folks nearby to know something about him or his business.

beacon on the Physical Web

What can be done with the recognition of proximity is a dizzyingly broad canvas. You might put a transmitter on your dog’s collar and the information someone finding him would need to get him back to you up on a webpage. When a smart device gets close to the lost animal it can receive that web link, open it and mend your heartache. In other cases a visual trigger might cause you to look for content in your immediate surrounding. The image below demonstrates how something called “the Physical Web” is brought to our attention via the placement of a logo on a door, even the window of a car for sale. Currently, Android users would access whatever notification there is via the Chrome browser on their Smartphone. Apple users have that same choice and a couple more. An alternative approach is the creation of a zone, a proprietary solution in which beacons in effect map out a shopping street or mall. A beacon at the entrance to the zone explains the voyage. Subsequent beacons may offer content from specific shops and attractions. All of this location-relevant content comes via an app, created to support the zone. So, the Smartphone Chrome browser in one case, a dedicated app in the other.

PhysicalWebIcon_on_a_door600

Contextual Awareness

At another point on the spectrum the same recognition of proximity could navigate you through an airport, taking you to your gate and providing on-time information. It can assist vision-impaired individuals in crossing similar spaces with limited human intervention by triggering speech modules to provide information and direction. And in a retail store, it can not only identify that you are standing next to the TV wall, it can measure how long you’re immobile (dwell time) and decide that you might be interested in information about one or more of the products near you. It might even change the video playing on a screen to one offering features, price, warranty and so on. These examples introduce proximity’s twin – context awareness. When our device is understood to be near an object, event or thing, an app may make an assumption regarding what we might welcome, perhaps because we are stationary for a measurable period. If you’re stopped before a store display, you might receive a choice of items to learn more about. Typically, this kind of engagement comes from a “beacon-rich” environment, where the danger of “spamming” you is understood and where care is taken to provide relevant content, not just another push.

Can You Play Too?

There is no doubt that it will be businesses large and small, in segments including retail, healthcare, transportation, events, stadiums and attractions, that will dominate the disbursement of proximity beacons and the content they reveal. But no one is excluded from participating.  

This kit includes three beacons, an app for your Smartphone and an online dashboard to assist you in identifying each separate beacon and assigning it a task. If you know nothing about writing code you will still be able to assign content, thanks to the software provided, and what you assign will still be available to Smartphones with Chrome browsers active, and Bluetooth enabled. If you work from home you could broadcast an ad for your business to passersby. You could advertise a car or boat or camper for sale, or an apartment for rent. And of course you could lose-proof Fido with a specific version of the beacon known as a sticker, intended to be stuck to an object. Sticker starter kits are also available.

Resources

Starter Kits:

Beaconstac
Starter kit at USD$79

Estimote
From USD$99
Sticker kit available

BestBuyBeacons
Starter Kit €99

Other options include purchasing just beacons and buying into a closed system solution for instructing and managing them. One example:
Offerdrop
Beacons from Estimote start at USD$30 each.

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Boosting A Facebook Page Post


I was recently asked to explain how I reached seven thousand Facebook newsfeeds for $10. I chose to answer in a blog post where adding illustrations is so simple. The first requirement in this process is that you have a business page rather than a personal profile. In my case it’s www.facebook.com/faceliftmarketing

Here’s the proof of my claim:

Harper_boost

Not all of the reach was bought. Just under 2000 were what Facebook calls “organic”, and for my page that’s a very high number. In this next screen cap you’ll see the reach Facebook attributes to the $10 buy:
Harper_results600
The process starts with the “Boost Post” button at lower right of each post, as seen by the page Administrator. Hovering over the button brings up the black box with reverse text. Visitors don’t see this option:
Harper_how_to_boost.600png
When you click the “Boost” button the following screen looks like this:
Harper_ad_preview600
As you can see, in this preview window you select your budget and make decisions about the audience, age, gender and geography. Once you’re satisfied you submit your ad and you’re done. Anyone with admin privileges may see real time results in the “Insights” tab, again only visible to admins. That’s it. Questions welcome if you have any.

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Buffer & Pablo – Great Tweet Tools



Buffer is a scheduler for social media content. I have used it for tweets for some months. Recently they added a tool called Pablo to their offering. Pablo makes simple the creation of images with text overlays, useful in many ways but particularly in cheating Twitter’s 140-character limit.

If you have Buffer installed in the Chrome browser you can highlight a string of text anywhere you find it, right-click and choose “Buffer”.

Highlight text and select "Buffer"
When you do you can proceed to create and send or schedule your tweet OR you can choose to use Pablo to set the text over an image from the media library.

Buffer's Pablo

Here is an example of what you can create when you make the choice to use Pablo:

Pablo text over image
When you create your tweet the image leaves you headroom to add copy to explain or link. A very useful combination of tools if Twitter is central to your social media activity.

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