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Google's Eddystone

Mark up the world using beacons

When it comes to popularizing Bluetooth beacons, Apple may have been first out of the gate with its iBeacon protocol — but Google is firing back with its own beacon protocol, Eddystone. And just as Android’s open-source model has held its own against iOS, Eddystone opens up the world of beacons to the many devices that live outside of Apple’s “walled garden” (while still remaining compatible with iOS).

Bluetooth beacons have a lot of different uses, from helping users navigate the interiors of buildings to creating interactive advertising and retail displays. A beacon is simply a Bluetooth transmitter that sends out a one-way signal like the ping of a submarine’s sonar. When a user’s mobile device receives the signal, it can take action depending on what message the signal contains.

As with Google’s Physical Web project, one possibility is to broadcast a URL that links to a specific web page associated with the object the beacon is attached to — like a bus stop that could link to route maps, fare tables and schedules — and In fact, the Physical Web will soon be changing over to the Eddystone protocol. Other messages could point toward content in an app the user already has installed or broadcast information about the beacon itself, like its current battery charge or its latitude and longitude (for placing users more precisely on a map).

Those different kinds of ping are called “frames”. Eddystone currently includes several of the most basic ones, including the device’s unique ID, a URL, telemetry (diagnostic data), and “ephemeral ID” — a kind of secret identifier that only authorized users can decrypt, which would be useful for creating private beacon networks or tagging luggage so you can find it at baggage claim. The platform is designed to be expandable, so new frame types can be expected down the road.

Accompanying Eddystone are several APIs. The Proximity Beacon API allows for managing fleets of beacons and associating new content with existing beacons, while the Nearby API lets developers integrate beacon signals into mobile apps to create location-aware experiences. Beacons can also be used to improve location sensing via tools like Android’s Place Picker, and beacons will soon be included in the contextual information presented by Google Now.

As it did with Android, Google is releasing Eddystone into the wild as an open-source beacon framework. The APIs, however, are proprietary — but technically, they’re not required for setting up and using Eddystone beacons (they just make it a lot easier). Meanwhile, hardware development is left to others. A number of companies are already on board to produce Eddystone-compatible beacons, including Blesh and Estimote.

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Related: Bluetooth Beacon Handbook, The Physical Web

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