Eddystone beacons: Google's answer to iBeacons

Launched as an alternative to Apple's iBeacon technology, Google's Bluetooth-based tracking opens up new uses that just aren't possible with GPS and Wi-Fi.

Google is getting ready to roll out its own Bluetooth-based beacon technology, letting apps and web services pinpoint your exact location.

Dubbed Eddystone (apparently after a U.K. lighthouse), the project is a cross-platform answer to Apple's iBeacon technology that arrived in 2013. It allows small beacon devices to detect when a phone, smartwatch, or other Bluetooth-enabled device comes within close range, in turn triggering a specific action.

Google offers a few examples of how this might be useful: When you arrive at a bus stop, you might get a notification informing you of any delays, and when you sit down on your couch, your phone might instantly display what's on TV. A beacon-equipped cat collar could deliver the owner's contact information, and a restaurant could show you its menu as you walk by. Bluetooth beacons allow for much greater accuracy than Wi-Fi and GPS alone, locating devices that are as close as a few centimeters away.

Interoperability is Google's big selling point, especially when compared to Apple's iBeacon. Beacon manufacturers can add Eddystone support with just a firmware update, and app makers can use Google's Nearby API to send information to both iOS and Android devices. (Apple, meanwhile, has shut down at least one attempt to support iBeacon on Android devices.) Google is also looking to tie beacons into its experimental Physical Web project, so they can deliver information without a dedicated app.

Read more: How beacons and nearables are giving marketers new customer know-how
Woolworths plans national beacons rollout to improve click-and-collect customer service

It's early days for Eddystone, and for beacons in general, and it's unclear how much adoption we'll see in the real world. But for now, a handful of apps are already using the Nearby API to transmit infromation to other devices, and several beacon hardware manufacturers have pledged their support.

The story behind the story: In theory, beacons should play a huge role in the explosion of Internet of Things, with applications that extend to home automation, smart automobiles, wearables, and beyond. As an example, a smart home would become much more useful when the lights, door locks, and thermostat know exactly which rooms are occupied, but that type of fine-grained location detection is largely unavailable in current products. Through interoperability, Google is hoping it can finally push beacons into the mainstream.

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