Chrome for iOS has been updated today with support for Physical Web, an initiative aimed at interacting with beacons based on the new Eddystone protocol through webpages instead of apps. Now, Chrome’s Today widget on iOS (previously used to open tabs and voice searches) can scan beacons broadcasting URLs nearby and offer to open them in Chrome directly.
From the blog post:
When users who have enabled the Physical Web open the Today view, the Chrome widget scans for broadcasted URLs and displays these results, using estimated proximity of the beacons to rank the content. You can learn more about the types of user experiences that the Physical Web enables by visiting our cookbook and joining the open source community on GitHub.
This is Google’s attempt at improving upon one of the biggest shortcomings of Apple’s iBeacon: app discoverability. iBeacons can achieve great utility if an associated/compatible app is already installed on a user’s device and sends a notification, but iOS doesn’t have a simple, consistent way to browse nearby beacons and start interacting with them right away. With Eddystone and Physical Web, Google is hoping that the transition from OS to discovered beacon and beacon functionality (for the smart device) can be smoother thanks to the web. Here’s how they explain it:
The Physical Web is an approach to unleash the core superpower of the web: interaction on demand. People should be able to walk up to any smart device - a vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car - and not have to download an app first. Everything should be just a tap away.
Essentially, Google wants to give every smart device a web address that doesn’t require an app store. This plays in favor of Google’s strengths and, potentially, core business model, but it also sounds like a superior solution for some cases if the overhead of app discovery is out of the equation altogether (for more on the differences between iBeacon and Physical Web, see this). The Physical Web implementation in Chrome for iOS looks clever and well done, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to play with it at some point. Seems crazy that all this is available in an iOS widget.
After introducing considerable improvements to their SDK last month, Estimote has announced Stickers – extensions for regular beacons to add context to everyday objects.
Estimote Stickers are complementary to Estimote Beacons. Whereas beacons add a layer of contextual intelligence to static locations such as stores, museums and airports, stickers extend that context to the objects within those venues. Stickers contain accelerometer and temperature sensors and an optimized ARM processor with flash memory and Bluetooth Smart controller, all inside a significantly smaller and thinner form factor. Stickers are truly designed to be placed on everyday objects. Simply attach a sticker to an item to turn it into a nearable - a smart, connected object that broadcasts data about its location, motion and temperature.
The video created by Estimote shows the potential of Stickers when applied, literally, to objects we interact with on a daily basis.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the pace of rollouts by Estimote and, generally speaking, the entirely new dimension that beacons are opening up for third-party developers and apps.
I was sent this article by Jeff Gamet about finding a lost Fitbit using your iPhone by my friend Stephen, and, while I don’t use a Fitbit, I thought it’d be interesting to try the recommended app for my Jawbone UP24. Jeff used BTLExplorer, a free app, to measure the signal strength of the Fitbit tracker and find it using his iPhone, but I didn’t like the outdated UI shown in the screenshot, so I went looking for similar apps on the App Store.
As it turns out, there are a lot of free apps to find BLE devices on the App Store. I ended up installing three of them, but I’m fairly certain you’d be fine with just one.
Bluetooth Smart Scanner shows device names, RSSI, and it can play sounds as it scans for nearby Bluetooth devices. It’s got a pretty basic iOS 7 design, it gets the job done, and I like the sound option.
LightBlue is similar to Bluetooth Smart Scanner, but it has a nicer interface with signal bars and lighter typography. It doesn’t have sounds.
BLE Discovery shows the same stats, but it comes with the ability to display a real-time graph for RSSI dBm and a three-second rolling average. You can tell it’s working by walking around a device you’re tracking and seeing the lines rise to “Strong signal” as you get closer.
This quick experiment taught me that there’s an abundance of BLE trackers on the App Store and that Jeff’s method works. To test the apps, I asked my girlfriend to hide my Jawbone UP24 while I was in the kitchen; when I walked into our bedroom, I started looking at numbers on the screen, which kept getting higher as I got closer to our dog. She had hidden the UP24 under a cushion the dog was sleeping on; he wasn’t pleased about my request to get up because I needed my fitness tracker back.
Estimote, makers of wireless beacons powered by Bluetooth and compatible with Apple’s iBeacon technology, today rolled out a series of power management features available in their updated iOS app and developer SDK:
Our embedded and systems engineers have worked for thousands of hours optimizing every packet in the Bluetooth stack and have devised several new schemes to extend the life of an Estimote Beacon measurably. We abstract 100% of this from developers and expose this neatly in both our mobile app and SDK for you to manage. And this is simply the first release in a series of power management features due out from us. We believe that pretty soon a beacon will be able to last forever, powering millions of interactions as consumers move about their journey through the physical world, and we want to be the first company to get there.
The more I read about them, the more I believe beacons and contextual awareness will profoundly change the way we interact with apps, letting our devices have a better understanding of our location, intention, and interaction with our surroundings. We’re already seeing this in retail, museums, stadiums, and even personal home automation. Estimote is leading the way with their iBeacon implementation, and you can check out the app here.
Developed by Joost van Dijk, Notifyr is a handy utility that lets you receive iOS notifications on your Mac using Bluetooth Low Energy. I’ve been trying the app with my iPhone 5s and mid-2011 MacBook Air since yesterday, and it does indeed work as advertised, mirroring notification banners from any iOS app on my Mac.
Travel Radar is a new iPhone app that lets you track your luggage using iBeacons. By measuring approximate distance from the beacon to your iPhone, Travel Radar can fire off a notification when your luggage is nearby, allowing you to easily identify it and pick it up. The app can track up to two pieces of luggage within 20 meters, and it’s $1.99 on the App Store.
iBeacons seem perfect for this kind of short-range smart tracking, which has gotten better with iOS 7.1. The developers of Travel Radar have detailed a few options for consumer beacons in a blog post – they recommend the Estimote Beacons, which I’ve also been considering to tinker at home with a few ideas I have (see this).
As reported by Doug Thompson, a change in iOS 7.1 now allows iBeacon-enabled apps to look for beacons and fire off notifications even when closed and after a device reboot:
After opening an iBeacon app we hard closed it: not just putting it into the background tray but swiping it closed entirely. The phone still detected beacons and sent a message through the lock screen, something which in the past was reserved for apps that were at minimum running in the background tray.
The functionality even works if you reboot your device: after you power down your phone and start it up again, it will continue listening for beacons even if you don’t open up the app again.
As Doug notes, this is an important change for how iBeacon works with iOS apps – it sounds like it’s now more stable and it should always work, removing the need to make sure an app is running.
For retailers, museums, and any other place with iBeacon support, this means that launching an app the first time should be enough to have it always ready to listen for beacons in the future (unless the app gets uninstalled of course). And because the technology is based on Bluetooth LE, the impact on battery life should be minimal to non-existent. This seems like a great change for iBeacon.
Craig Karmin, reporting for the WSJ:
Guests arriving at the Aloft Hotel in Manhattan or one in Silicon Valley will soon be able to do something hotels have dreamed about offering for years: walk past the check-in desk and enter their rooms by using a smartphone as a room key.
Guests at these properties will receive a message on a Starwood app containing a virtual key, which will unlock the door with a tap or twist of their phone through the use of Bluetooth technology. The company says the iPhone 4s or newer models and the Android phones running 4.3 or newer will be compatible.
Personally, I still enjoy the interaction with staff members when I check in, which is also the reason why I always go talk to an employee when I need to buy something at my local Apple store (I tried Apple’s EasyPay feature, and it felt odd).
This is where the future is going, though, and there are several elements worth considering. Bluetooth LE has stolen the spotlight from NFC for low-power, peer-to-peer wireless transfers, and there are obvious security concerns over solutions like this, as well as home products like the Lockitron. It’s an exciting time to watch pocket computers reshape our world.
During my typical work day, my iPhone 5 is sitting on my desk next to my MacBook Air or iPad, usually locked as I’m focusing on writing or researching topics for MacStories. I don’t receive many phone calls, and when I do I don’t mind picking up my phone and using it for the task that phones were made for in the first place (remember when people used to buy phones to make phone calls?). Dialogue, a new Mac app released today on the Mac App Store, wants to remove the annoyance that some people have with switching devices when a phone call comes in; at $6.99, Dialogue uses Bluetooth to route phone calls through your Mac – employing an unobtrusive menubar popover to find contacts and manage connected devices. Read more