in Event Tech

Beacons have been around for about four years now but are still seldom used by event planners. Why is that? Are they too complex to use? Too expensive? Or simply not useful? After reading this post, you will be able to answer these questions and make an educated decision as to whether you should include beacons in your next event planning.

Why use beacons?

Before we dive into the details of what they are and how they work, let’s try to answer the question, why should you even care about beacons?

Beacons are interesting in the context of events, because they enable event planners to interact with attendees based on their indoors location quite precisely — think within a few meters. This new capability is very useful, for example, to:

  • track traffic patterns around an exhibit hall;
  • send attendees targeted messages if they’re near certain booths;
  • create a real-life scavenger hunt;
  • divert traffic from full sessions to empty ones, etc.

The list is only limited by the event planner’s creativity.

How much does a beacon cost?

As of December 2017, the price per unit is roughly $20. You can get discount prices if you purchase in bulk.

For a stadium-size event hall, you will need about 100 of them to cover the entire area — though that’s not what you may want. If you only want to detect attendees’ presence within limited areas such as the food court, the restrooms, and the main stage for example, you may only require 10-15 beacons.

Ok, now you’ve hopefully convinced beacons are an interesting and quite cheap tool in your toolbox, let’s roll up our sleeves and become experts.

What is a beacon?

A beacon is a small electronic device that alerts recipients of its presence within a pre-defined radius. For example, a beacon could alert anyone with a certain mobile app (the recipients) within 10 meters (the pre-defined radius.)

beacon

Beacons can come in all shapes and forms. The one pictured above is a model we routinely rent out and is about one inch square. There are lots of providers, and at the time of this post, a standard beacon costs $20 or less.

How does it work?

At a high level, the following happens:

  1. The beacon is configured to be active within a certain radius. For example, the beacon will only be active within 3 feet.
  2. The beacon and a recipient connect. Anything can be a recipient but in practice for an event, the recipient is usually the event app. Think of this step as one person dialing another person’s phone number.
  3. The beacon broadcasts to the recipient. The beacon will alert any recipient of its presence if they’re nearby, i.e. within the beacon’s pre-defined radius.
  4. If a recipient receives an alert from the beacon, any action can take place. For example, the event app can display a message from a sponsor or an exhibitor.

We will review each step in details.

Configuration

You’ve received your beacons, you’re excited to get up and running. I have bad news: the first step, configuration, is not simple.

Regardless of which vendor you choose, you’ll get access to a dashboard with lots of useless options. This is primarily because beacons are, or should be, a commodity, but vendors need to differentiate themselves. For the event planner, this translates into complex technical settings that you probably will never use.

All you want is your event app to receive a signal from the beacon, and for that all you need to configure is the radius of activity. Simple enough you might think. Not quite.

MYTH: beacons can help target attendees precisely

Beacons are nowhere near as precise as initially advertised. Instead of saying “I want my beacon to be active within 2 meters”, you’ll have to configure its Tx power or broadcasting power.

The vendor’s documentation usually provides a mapping between this power value and the actual range in meters. Be aware that the range value in meters is approximate and can change if anything gets in the way from the beacon to the attendee.

Setting the Tx Power Setting the Broadcasting Power

Setting the range with different beacon vendors

In short, keep things simple when using beacons. Do not design an experience where you need highly precise locations of attendees, especially if beacons are near each other and potentially overlapping. Instead, use beacons to locate attendees within a room for example.

In practice, we often set up the beacons on behalf of our clients who simply share their beacon vendor’s account information.

Connection

First, the beacon and the recipient (e.g. the mobile app on your phone) need to set up a wireless connection. This is where Bluetooth1 comes into play. Think of Bluetooth as a lightweight WiFi connection, where the connected devices don’t need to know the WiFi password, etc.

Broadcasting

Now connected, the beacon needs to broadcast to the recipient, so both must speak the same language. In the tech world, such languages are commonly called “protocols.”2

At press time, the two most popular communication protocols for beacons are iBeacon (backed by Apple) and Eddystone (backed by Google.) Most beacons now support both protocols seamlessly (i.e. speak both languages fluently), but make sure the beacons you buy support at least one of them.

This is a good time to clear a confusion: beacons are the physical devices you buy, iBeacon is a protocol, or a language, supported by beacons.

The beacon and the recipient speak the same language, what do they say? The simplest and most useful message a beacon sends is its ID. This ID will look different whether the beacon “speaks” Eddystone or iBeacon, but will uniquely identify the beacon regardless.

Action

The recipient (the event app on the attendee’s phone) now knows it’s near a certain beacon. What’s next?

This is up to the event app and how you’ve configured it for this particular beacon. Each app provider that supports beacons has a list of possible actions, and you will have to pick an action for each beacon. Examples of such actions are:

  • Show a pop-up with a sponsor ad on the attendee’s phone screen
  • Give 10 extra points to the attendee on the leaderboard
  • Send a message to the attendee with instructions in the case of a treasure hunt
  • Do nothing and silently log the attendee’s presence (let’s say to count the number of attendees in a room)

Ask your event app vendor what actions are available, and design your beacon experience around them.

Example

Beacon examples

Here’s a visual example of good and bad. Beacon A and beacon B have different radius (or broadcasting power). Beacon A cannot reach Phone 1 because an obstacle is in between. Phone 2, however, receives Beacon A’s signal perfectly. Beacon B’s radius is  quite wide, and overlaps with Beacon A’s, so Phone 3 receives both signals at the same time. Depending on your situation, this could be an issue or not.

 

Conclusion

That’s it. If you’ve read everything, you now know more about beacons than most people. You also understand that they do not solve everything, have limitations, but are flexible enough to create games or new experiences.

The two strongest barriers to adoption are the initial setup and “unreasonable expectations.” A beacon is just another tool in your pocket that helps you locate attendees within indoor spaces and assign actions from a pre-defined list when an attendee is near a beacon.

Anything still unclear? Another point we forgot to address? Please let us know in the comments and we’ll update this post if necessary.

Commonly Asked Questions

How much does a beacon cost?

Prices change fast, but as of December 2017, beacons cost $20 or less per unit.

How long does a beacon work?

Beacons work with batteries whose life span is 2 to 3 years.

Is iBeacon better than Eddystone (or vice-versa)?

Who knows. It doesn’t matter at all, as long as these are standards and can easily be supported by app vendors.

Should I buy or rent beacons?

If it’s a one-time event and you’ve never used beacons before, you’re much better off renting beacons from your app provider who will set them up for you. If you have multiple events, definitely buy your own beacons. We have had good experience both with Estimote and kontakt.io.


 

  1. Bluetooth historically had a bad rep because of reported battery draining issues. As a result, most mobile users disabled Bluetooth, making beacon-based technologies unusable. This is mostly a thing of the past. Bluetooth has become ubiquitous, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a more power-efficient version of Bluetooth used by beacons, will not penalize mobile users for using Bluetooth services
  2. Just like there are hundreds of languages spoken around the world, there are even more protocols that allow computers or devices to communicate.