$500 rectangle meet $5 rectangle

We started 2017 by (optimistically) predicting that a major social network would empower their users to “advertise” their profile to specific physical places they visit. In other words:

We expected 2017 to be the dawn of seamless PHYSICAL social networking.

We had high hopes for Snap when this year we observed their Spectacles transmitting uniquely-identifiable Bluetooth “advertising” packets. Would Snap equip hip venues to recognise their young, uninhibited, Spectacled users, deliver them unforgettable, personalised real-world experiences, and make rivals Facebook look even more like a boring platform for their parents?   No.

How about Facebook? We caught up with them at Place Conference again this year where they shared how they had reached 2 billion monthly active users, and how 1 in 10 people open their app while in retail stores. Wow! Would Facebook swoop in as brick-and-mortar retail’s sole saviour by sharing their view of the customer, detected in-store via the Facebook app? How about if we shared with them the exact technical blueprints to make it happen?   No.

How about Google? In February, we updated our own reelyApp to show how Google’s Physical Web could let users “advertise” themselves to their surroundings in a web-standard format. When running the app, people would approach us and curiously inquire “how did your profile get on my phone?” Would Google leverage their popular browser, mobile OS and understanding of the user to make browsing the “Physical Web” as seamless as browsing online?   No.

We even asked Scott Jenson (then) director of the Physical Web, at Bluetooth World 2017, about this powerful feature to which he replied that “it’s not intended for the average person to advertise themselves.” Indeed, while Google will let you do it, they don’t want you to (does that qualify as permissionless innovation?) and the fragmented Android hardware results in inconsistent Bluetooth behaviour. Apple on the other hand can boast about their devices’ Bluetooth stability, but severely restricts what a mobile application can actually transmit (the Eddystone packets of the Physical Web are a definite no-no).

Why do we continue to put up with paying $500 for rectangles that impede the potential of physical social networking?

Seriously. Since our pioneering technology demo in 2013 and the subsequent GigaOM article that highlighted the potential, aside from several retail and smart office apps we developed with our partners, we haven’t identified a single major mobile application that enables the recognition of its users on a human scale, in the real world. It’s as if Apple and Google don’t want this to happen — and perhaps, sadly, that is the most logical conclusion.

Why buy a $500 rectangle when a $5 rectangle can do the job?

2017 was a big year for the post-mobile, $5 rectangle future:

  1. the $5 beacons exist in rectangular (and other) form factors, are now reliable, and can be reliably sourced
  2. a growing family of such beacons can have their behaviour programmed by even a non-technical person through a web browser (see puckyActive)
  3. a ubiquitous in-building infrastructure to “hear” these beacons has seen the light

In less-technical terms, that means you can buy and wear/carry a tiny $5 device whenever you’d like to be automatically recognised by a physical space. That could be in your smart workplace which assists you to perform your work more efficiently (our top application today). That could be at a smart venue which assists you to physically network like a boss while your mobile remains tucked away in your pocket. In time, every space will have the ability to recognise its occupants who choose if/what they’d like to share. Are we perhaps approaching peak-mobile?

Those who remember reelyActive in 2012 undoubtedly remember our live directory where your physical presence in a venue was indicated on an ambient display. In anticipation of what’s to come, we’ve now revived and revamped the Live Directory, as well as introduced other calm visualisations such as Sonar and Raindrops.

Why get your information from a $500 5-inch screen when a 32-inch+ screen is provided by the venue and is free to recognise what should be displayed to you!

We find it difficult not to be optimistic about the future that we’ve already created for ourselves. But to share this future with a broad audience, it seems imperative to first overcome both the entrenched mobile-centric view of the universe and the comfort of incremental change. Not easy, but not impossible.

Imagine, at CES 2019, row upon row of vendors selling custom cases for $5 rectangles. As in Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

Light hears ahead of its time

Back in 2013 when the Internet of Things was peaking on the hype-cycle — and all too often described using contrived smart home examples — this was perhaps our favourite way to explain the IoT:

You find yourself having to relocate from Montréal to San Francisco, but no sweat. Computers have already identified the things in your home you’ll want to take along. Computers have located and procured replacements near your destination. And what can’t be replaced they will ship there as efficiently as possible. Finally, those items you don’t use, they’ve already posted online for sale. Relax and enjoy your journey!

Far-fetched?   Not if buildings were able to identify and locate their occupants, including the everyday items worth moving or replacing!

This week, the proverbial light bulb just went off (yes, brace for more such puns). Lunera announced the transformation of the LED light bulb.

Lunera Smart T8

Is theirs the first smart light bulb?   No.   How then is this transformative? Lunera’s light bulb is the first that’s smart enough to listen.

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices occupying the buildings in which we live. These include the laptop on which I’m typing, the smartphone in my pocket, the wearable on my wrist and even the chair on which I’m sitting! All you need to do is listen, which is what our platform does to identify and locate such devices: effectively BYOD RTLS.

Indeed, our own infrastructure has been listening since 2013. We’ve learned a lot since then, patiently waiting for a brilliant solution to the pervasive infrastructure challenge. What’s so exciting today about being a Lunera launch partner is the fact that lighting is the ubiquitous in-building infrastructure. At the flip of a switch, a building can begin to measure the real world like the web.

Kevin Ashton, who coined the term IoT, defined it as:

computers [understanding] the world — without the limitations of human-entered data

Are BLE and smart lighting not building toward that on an unprecedented scale? Is that not the magic behind our example of the transcontinental move? Is that itself not akin to a Pervasive Sharing Economy?   That’s what happens when light hears ahead of its time!

Facebook, it’s time to “share” your view of the customer

At the 2017 Place Conference, on the Rx for Retail panel, Trace Johnson of Total Wine & More eloquently summarised his problem, one faced by so many modern retailers today:

“we need a unified view of our customer”

And while the panel concluded that there is no single vendor that can offer that solution, conference organiser Greg Sterling interjected:

“Facebook is the closest”

Indeed, Facebook, who also presented at the conference, have an unprecedented understanding of their 2 billion monthly active users, and already offer to their business customers arguably the best targeted advertising capability of any platform. And if the audience (or even Facebook themselves!) had any doubt about their presence in brick-and-mortar retail, these fresh stats hammered home the point:

Facebook in Stores

So what’s preventing Facebook from offering retailers a unified view of the customers that walk through their door — as they walk through the door? Not much we’d argue! In addition to having an established relationship with most retailers, they have both the digital view of the customer online and the physical presence of their mobile app in-store. From a technological perspective it’s entirely feasiBLE to connect the two!

Facebook User Identification

The above diagram illustrates how we see Facebook closing the loop. The missing link is essentially the Facebook app “advertising” a real-world cookie using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and the infrastructure to relay back to Facebook the precise real-time location of this cookie, whenever it is detected. With this in place, Facebook could push the retailer not only a unified view of their customer, but one contextually enriched with the on-line and in-store journey. As a result:

Facebook owns the user.   The retailer owns the in-store experience.

It’s important to note that Facebook did try to roll out a beacon infrastructure in 2015 which, unsurprisingly, didn’t work out (another presenter at the conference, TouchTunes, lamented the impossible logistics of maintaining their fleet of tens of thousands of battery-powered beacons). The differences in the scenario we present are the following:

  • Internet-connected mains-powered BLE infrastructure solves this logistics nightmare
  • Facebook doesn’t need to own/manage this infrastructure

At reelyActive, we’ve been selling such infrastructure to small and large businesses for years, and we’re not alone. But the game-changer will be when BLE capabilities are added to smart lighting infrastructure — which is actually happening even faster than we expected!  In short:

infrastructure can no longer be considered a blocker

Facebook can enable — with clear user opt-in, of course — their mobile app to advertise a user identifier in the form of a 128-bit UUID (which is supported by both iOS and Android).

Facebook 128-bit UUID

Any infrastructure in range would detect these BLE packets, and software such as our Pareto SaaS could establish their provenance from the Facebook app from the Public ID. The software can then forward the UUID to Facebook’s API along with the precise location of the receiving infrastructure. Using the Private ID, only Facebook can then look up their user and push any relevant info to the retailer’s back-end, for them to deliver the final in-store experience.

That in-store experience is what brick-and-mortar retail is all about, and we were (again) reminded that 9 out of 10 purchases are still made in-store. But without a unified customer view, how can we expect our local retailers to optimise the experiences accompanying 90% of the purchases we make? Especially when, as Verve’s Walt Geer highlighted, an increasing number of consumers themselves already expect this and won’t hesitate to opt-in for the promise of personalised experiences!

Opt-in for personalisation

Four years ago, when our vision of the future helped us win World’s Best Startup, we wrote Facebook, you might “like” this. Today as that vision is becoming a reality, we might instead say Facebook, it’s time to “share” your view of the customer.   How could that not be good for business?

The next ambitious 5-year plan

To celebrate the five-year anniversary of reelyActive’s incorporation, we compiled the significant milestones of our history. Looking back at our origins, when our mission was to create the first simple and accessible cloud-based active RFID system we were reminded of the problems we were solving in 2012, namely:

A commercially-proven active RFID standard had yet to emerge
– we had to develop and build our own transmitter devices
– we had to develop and build our own receiver infrastructure

Every application was its own silo
– we had to educate clients and partners about the platform model
– we had to develop most applications from scratch

In essence, we were attempting to create both the technology and the market. We were confident about the former, our team benefiting from unparalleled domain experience. The latter, however, was a measured risk. Nonetheless, there was room for optimism thanks to a known, underserved need and to Wibree, the obscure radio protocol that had found itself a home in Bluetooth. Now, fast-forward to today, 2017:

Multiple commercially-proven RFID standards have emerged
– Bluetooth Low Energy became the de facto active standard by 2014
– RAIN RFID became the de facto passive standard almost simultaneously
– tens of billions of such radio-identifiable devices are already deployed!

An ecosystem of complementary technology platforms has emerged
– prospective clients and partners now expect the platform model
– we can forward data to third-party cloud applications in a single click
– smart lighting systems will soon displace our own infrastructure

In essence, the technology and the market now exist. We’re no longer obliged to build and deploy tags, infrastructure and applications. And we’re delighted to leave all that behind us!

Time for the next mission, one that we’ve eagerly awaited all along. It’s time now to make sense of the countless identifiable “things” detected and tracked by a heterogeneous mix of infrastructure generating unparalleled real-world contextual awareness that matters to countless applications. In short, to connect what’s going on in the real world right now with everyone who should rightfully know.

While that’s again quite the challenge, it’s certainly one that we look forward to looking back upon in another five years time!

BYOD RTLS

While the terms bring your own device (BYOD), coined when employees started bringing their own phones and laptops to the office, and real-time location systems (RTLS), coined when RFID tags started to be tracked, may be unfamiliar to many, together, these concepts promise to have an impact that will soon become familiar to us all in our daily lives.

Chances are, you already BYOD when you’re out-of-home (OOH), simply by carrying your iPhone, Fitbit or Tile in public. And, perhaps surprisingly, that very phenomenon is the catalyst for a global sensor infrastructure that is enabling computers to understand the real-world in real-time. Yes, those devices you’re “bringing” can be located in real-time — and in this post we’ll do our best to convince you to be optimistic about the impact!

Today, BYOD RTLS is enabling anonymous audience measurement to improve customer experiences. And, the mass production of consumer devices has made radio chips so inexpensive and ubiquitous as to catalyse classic RTLS applications in industry, a cornerstone of the fourth industrial revolution. Before long everything will be radio-identifiable, extending the Uber and AirBnB phenomena to everyday commodities in the pervasive sharing economy. Here’s how and why.

Audience Measurement

When are people passing by?   What proportion pass through the door?   What are the most common journeys inside my venue?   Where do people spend the most time?   How much time?

These are the questions that a BYOD RTLS can answer, and our Pareto platform today provides those answers to retailers and OOH operators. By listening for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals, it is possible to respect the preferences of the end user who can:

  • turn off Bluetooth and avoid detection
  • be anonymously identified when Bluetooth is enabled
  • be uniquely identified with an explicit opt-in (see our previous post)

What does anonymously mean? At best we can segment by device type, as you can see in the image below and live on our website.

Advertising devices as detected by Pareto today

Brick-and-mortar retail knows it needs to compete on customer experience, and by answering the above questions — in a way that respects their customers’ individual preferences — the benefits extend right back to those very customers.

Classic RTLS without Vendor Lock-In

Where are my assets?   Where do they spend the most time?   How is work-in-progress moving through my space?   Where and when are there bottlenecks?

These are the questions that RTLS has been answering for two decades, albeit with sparse adoption in industry. The BYOD phenomenon is set to change that. Today a systems integrator — or even the industrial/commercial client themselves — can put in place a RTLS using:

  • BLE readers from a variety of vendors (ex: our reelceivers)
  • inexpensive Bluetooth beacons from countless vendors
  • middleware from a variety of vendors (ex: our open-source or Pareto)

When we founded reelyActive in 2012, we had to develop our own proprietary readers and tags. But merely a year later we were among the first to embrace BYOD RTLS when BLE seemed poised to revolutionise the industry by providing a global radio standard. The ability for any company to answer the above questions is far more valuable than pushing a proprietary platform, and all parties, especially the end-customers, benefit from the resulting massive gain in efficiencies.

The fourth industrial revolution is all about efficiency, and industries know they need RTLS to remain competitive. Fortunately it turns out that tracking in-store customer journeys and work-in-progress on a shop floor amount to essentially the same thing — how about that for efficiency!

The Pervasive Sharing Economy

Where is the nearest available bicycle?   What tools are available nearby?   Who can come and help me right now?   Clothing-as-a-Service???

These are the questions that soon we’ll not think twice about asking, expecting not only to receive an answer, but in fact the optimal answer. Already billions of products with an embedded BLE radio are shipping annually, and at least an order of magnitude more are shipping with a standardised UHF passive RFID tag (see RAIN RFID). Before long it will be commonplace for everyday products to be radio-identifiable in everyday situations, driving The Pervasive Sharing Economy where the “Uber for power tools”, the “AirBnB for storage”, and yes, even Clothing-as-a-Service, can finally thrive.

Indeed, everything becoming a shareable resource is the embodiment of our vision of ubiquitous machine-contextual-awareness at the service of humanity and is the reason we at reelyActive created open projects such as advlib and Sniffypedia to hasten this revolution. But already today, in the form of anonymous audience measurement and classic industrial applications, BYOD RTLS is making a significant impact which, we hope you’ll agree, has pertinent applications today and enormous positive potential over the long term.

“Advertise” yourself with The Physical Web, and beyond…

Would you wear a t-shirt that advertises a webpage?

Attend any tech conference and you’d be hard pressed not to spot one. In fact, most of us advertise company brands every day by much more than just the clothes we wear.

Now, would you wear a t-shirt that advertises YOUR webpage?

Why not? You are your own brand. Perhaps a t-shirt isn’t your preferred communication channel? How about a mobile app?

There you have it: within 30 seconds, you can be advertising your personal brand as a webpage via an Android application. And, more importantly, there’s a non-negligible chance that someone Nearby will take notice!

For those interested in the technology (or the nerdy featured image), it’s all standard: Android can advertise URLs in Eddystone packets over Bluetooth Low Energy. And our open source json-silo accepts the profile of any Person, Product or Place as schema.org and JSON-LD, and returns an Eddystone-friendly URL. When queried, the json-silo returns the profile name as the title, and the profile description in the meta, both of which are used by The Physical Web to present contextual notifications on mobile.

Contextual Notification on Nearby

In our previous blog post, we predicted:

this will be the year that a major social network empowers their users to “advertise” themselves in exchange for personalised everyday experiences

It’s technically possible. And the moment businesses start listening and responding to such ads, the incentives for both parties become undeniable. We’ve been preparing for that moment for a long time.

We are advertising!  The devices we carry and wear are already anonymously advertising our presence, and personalisation is inevitable. Here’s the question:  Are you listening?

OOH! A social media prediction for 2017

In 2016, we postulated that the Internet of Things may very well prove to be a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us, given that the devices we carry and wear make it possible to “advertise” our digital selves to the physical places we visit. When the Local Search Association asked us and 50 experts about the future of location-based marketing and media we replied:

our prediction for 2017 is that the first major social network will empower their users to experiment with this feature

Technology is no longer the blocker, as you can “advertise” yourself with reelyApp using established standards as we described in detail months ago.

And we can already push the concept quite far in everyday life. We proved, with our partners, measurable ROI in retail with a live deployment that even triggers contextually-relevant videos on displays to shoppers:

Now extend that capability across a city. In anticipation of programmatic advertising, out-of-home (OOH) media companies are scrambling to adopt technologies that can measure real-world audiences in real-time. Such technologies will enable citywide marketplaces for the data you choose to share, as we presented at a recent Ericsson Smart Cities event:

All the emerging marketplace is missing is a critical mass of individuals with the incentive to “advertise” their digital selves. And a major social network is the ideal candidate to bring exactly that to the table.

We’re working to kindle that marketplace, engaging both sides of the table, and recently adding key enabling features to our Pareto platform, including programmatic content triggers. We even memed the personalised advertising scene from The Minority Report (2002) to serve as the default video content.

15 years ago, would you have predicted that we would today choose to carry and wear personal identification devices?

Are we right to predict that a major social network will empower such users to share what they want when they want in exchange for personalised everyday experiences? Let’s see what 2017 has in store, pun intended!

A remarkaBLE week in Bluetooth

The headlines:

  • 01 12 16 — HID Global Acquires Bluvision to Expand With Bluetooth Solutions for the Enterprise Internet of Things Market (press release)
  • 05 12 16 — Gimbal is Joining The Mobile Majority (press release)
  • 07 12 16 — Bluetooth 5 Now Available (press release)

It’s not every week that you see two companies in your competitive landscape acquired, in addition to the first major evolution of the standard on which your core technology is based! Amidst everything else that’s happened in 2016, perhaps we’re the only ones to remark this remarkaBLE coincidence, but it’s certainly not without significance!

In 2012, when we started reelyActive, our expected exit was an enterprise acquisition: build a better real-time location system (RTLS), raise the right eyebrows, combine agile innovation with access to the right resources. It would appear that Bluvision have done just that, which is commendable given the track record of outcomes for RTLS companies (our co-founders cut their teeth at one which inevitably failed!)

Over the past few months, we’ve shifted our immediate focus to the out-of-home (OOH) market which has a pressing need to reach and engage individuals in the real-world, in real-time, and in context (all the while measuring the results). It would appear that Gimbal and The Mobile Majority have come together to do just that for mobile advertising.

What makes this week’s coincidence so striking to us?

Where Gimbal and The Mobile Majority are headed, we’re taking our novel Bluetooth RTLS technology, like that of Bluvision.

When Bluvision CEO Jimmy Buchheim showed us his BluFi prototype in 2014, we knew we weren’t alone in developing “bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) RTLS technology allowing any Bluetooth Low Energy device, including the ones we carry and wear, to be identified and tracked throughout a space. This is the inverse (literally!) of what Gimbal and almost every other mobile-focused company is doing today with beacons.

But what about the future? To us, advertising is backwards, as much for brands as for Bluetooth packets! Which brings us to Bluetooth 5.

With 4x range, 2x speed and 8x broadcasting message capacity, the enhancements of Bluetooth 5 focus on increasing the functionality of Bluetooth for the IoT.

While the Bluetooth SIG are advertising (pun intended) the above features as key to the future of IoT, what’s key to us is that Bluetooth 5 hasn’t upset the existing wireless advertising functionality (which, for us, makes it the undisputed global standard for Active RFID). This means that the growing billions of people, products and places with Bluetooth radios will retain the possibility of being discoverable on a human scale, advertising what they want, when they want and with whom they want.

Our mission is to unlock the value of the data [they] choose to share.

And the week’s events have emboldened us on that mission, affirming the value of BYOD RTLS and of reaching audiences in the real-world, while protecting and extending the wireless standard which makes our vision a reality.

Hearable Nearables

Imagine you could “hear” Bluetooth devices moving through a building. In anticipation of last weekend’s #HackTheHouse hackathon for smart buildings, hosted at Notman House where we’ve had our technology deployed since 2012, we created the Notman Tonal Presence web application to do just that.

On each of Notman’s three floors, there are three of our Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors (which we call reelceivers), plus an addition sensor in the adjacent OSMO Cafe.

Think of each floor as a musical note in a scale (C – E – G – C), and each wing of that floor as a pan in stereo (Left – Centre – Right).

When BLE devices “appear” and “disappear” they produce a note which encodes the location by the tonality and pan. Same thing when BLE devices “displace” from one zone to another, only these use a ping-pong delay rather than a pan.

For the hackathon, we ordered three packs of Estimote Nearables which are BLE devices that periodically transmit their temperature and 3-axis acceleration. Unfortunately, these were held up in customs and didn’t make it in time. But the web app essentially turns these into “hearable nearables” and, as you’ll pick out in the video, we could tell not only when they had arrived, but also where in the house they were:

Yes, they’re on the second floor east (right) wing. Why so noisy? As we discussed in our ObservaBLE Etiquette blog post, the Estimote Nearables cycle their identifier with every transmission. To an observer, that would be interpreted as a new device “appearing” each time. Hence plenty of appearance and disappearance notes in the web application.

To reinforce this point, have a look at the Google Analytics (GA) timeline for Notman House. Our platform pushes all the events from the house to GA (see our Google Analytics for the Physical World blog post), where each is interpreted as a session based on its identifier. The Nearables’ aggressive identifier-cycling results significantly biases the number of sessions, and hence we can tell from the edge of the high plateau when they arrived: shortly after 16h on November 15th.

We created the Notman Tonal Presence application as an example of calm technology for smart buildings. The ambient sounds allow the listener to subconsciously register foot traffic within the building while leaving their attention free for other tasks. Even the casual listener would have been gently alerted to the arrival of the Nearables, which is precisely the objective of calm technology. And, now, duly alerted, we can direct our attention towards filtering out the Nearables from GA so that their incessant identifier-cycling doesn’t saturate the session counts!

ObservaBLE etiquette

Rules are explicit principles governing conduct. Etiquette is an expected code of conduct within social norms. When we developed and released our first Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device in 2013, there were rules, but there was no etiquette.

To understand why, recall that BLE was born as Wibree, introduced by Nokia in 2006, and only merged into the Bluetooth standard in 2010. That merger paved the way for the first global standard for Active RFID, as BLE allows devices to spontaneously “advertise” themselves to any and all observers (readers) in range. While the BLE rules may be a decade old, commercial deployments are far too recent to expect established etiquette, even today.

Before BLE, there were only proprietary Active RFID systems, of which the reelyActive cofounders themselves have developed two. Proprietary systems afford the designers control over both the rules and etiquette conducive to the intended application of the technology. BLE, on the other hand, established the rules for a global standard, encouraging widespread adoption, while leaving the etiquette necessarily free to (hopefully) emerge from the real-world interactions of the billion-plus devices now shipping annually from countless vendors.

Over the past three years, while we have indeed observed an emergence of etiquette, it tends to remain fragmented and lack cohesion. Moreover, we continue to be surprised by the incidence of minor rule violations. Our intent here is to formally acknowledge these shortcomings, suggest improvements and encourage all concerned parties to collaborate to ensure that the enormous potential of BLE’s unique “advertising” capability can be fully realised.

Manufacturer Specific Data: breaking the rules

A powerful feature of BLE is the ability to “advertise” a few bytes of whatever you want, whenever you want, as Manufacturer Specific Data. Simply include your 16-bit company code (list here) and send whatever data you like (sensor readings, identifiers, missile launch codes, …). Curiously, that simple rule gets broken, likely inadvertently, far more often than one might expect.

That can’t be what your Samsung wearable is advertising, the company code is invalid! Oh wait, it’s just backwards…

Yes, even Samsung can get the endianness wrong, sending 0x7800 instead of 0x0078.

TrackR as Ericsson

Will you register with the SIG and use a companyIdentifierCode other than Ericsson’s 0x0000 in future?

That’s a line from our e-mail to Chris from TrackR after we observed that their devices were using company code ‘0’ which is assigned to Ericsson Technology Licensing. As of writing, TrackR still don’t appear to have claimed their own company code.

The most common error we’ve seen is for devices to ignore the 16-bits reserved for the company code and employ the entire space for their own data. While this and the errors presented above aren’t showstoppers per se, they nonetheless hamper device discovery due to mistaken or unknown identity. What’s going on?

It’s easy to follow the rules when they’re well documented. In the case of BLE, we feel there’s much room for improvement. In fact, we took it upon ourselves to create a software library called advlib, with explicit documentation and an online tool for interpreting advertising packets, and even presented our work as a scientific article. While we trust that these will be helpful to the community, our expectation, however, would be for the Bluetooth SIG to ensure an ample supply of developer-friendly documentation and accessible tools.

“Return of the MAC”: emerging etiquette

Another powerful feature of BLE is the option to “advertise” a random, rather than static, 48-bit identifier. A device therefore has the option to identify itself three ways, using a:

  • static, IEEE-assigned identifier
  • static, randomly-generated identifier
  • periodically-changing, randomly-generated identifier

If we imagine the use case of a retail store “observing” the occupants via their “advertising” BLE devices, these three options offer the following possibilities, respectively:

  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits, chipset manufacturer can be looked up
  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits
  • device cannot be recognised on subsequent visits

Indeed, the retail use case is the one for which we receive the most inquiries. Given privacy concerns, one might expect an emergent etiquette around how the devices we’re likely to carry or wear into a store identify themselves. Consistent behaviour across devices would expedite adoption in retail, however, our answer to such inquiries about identification continues to be “it’s complicated”, and here’s why.

Apple’s iOS devices, which were among the first to embrace BLE technology, can be commended for electing to change their identifier every 15 minutes or so. This ensures privacy by preventing someone from being recognised as a repeat visitor to a store, yet allows their in-store journey to be anonymously tracked for the duration of that period. For us, that strikes a healthy balance of benefits for both the client and the retailer.

Android devices originally embraced BLE technology haphazardly, tending at first to static identifiers. However, from Android 5 onwards, like in iOS, periodically-changing identifiers are employed. At the Place Conference, we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google, what one thing he’d like to see improve faster. His answer was the convergence of behaviour among the diverse BLE hardware and firmware in the mobile devices running Android. Indeed, without that challenge first resolved for Android, it’s unreasonable to expect any refinement of etiquette!

And then there’s Fitbit.

I bought my Fitbit Charge HR in March 2015, and 18 months later, it’s still advertising the same identifier every second-and-a-half or so.

Clearly a different approach to identification and privacy than the mobile platforms… We tweeted Fitbit about this, but the behaviour remains the same with subsequent firmware updates. Care to know where the Fitbit-wearing author of this article is right now? Simply ask our open API whereis d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2 or what is the contextnear d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2? We’ve seen the same from other wearables vendors such as Xiaomi, but given Fitbit’s technical know-how and dominant market share, highlighted by the number of their devices our platform detects, it’s curious that they haven’t yet moved to protect privacy by occasionally cycling their identifiers!

FYX and Nearables cycling identifiers

Finally, on the other extreme, there are devices which go so far as to change their identifier on each subsequent transmission. We’ve observed both Qualcomm’s FYX beacon and Estimote’s Nearables exhibiting this behaviour. Curiously, the latter includes a static 64-bit identifier as Manufacturer Specific Data, thereby completely voiding any potential motivation for privacy or security! The result of this behaviour is that an “observer” sees the individual device as multiple devices, appearing and disappearing in sequence. Depending on how the vendor’s BLE stack handles this case, this would likely lead to inefficient use of memory and computing resources, possibly overwhelming or even crashing the stack! Perhaps not the best etiquette!

From the examples given, it is clear that there is an emergence of identification etiquette, at least for individual vendors across their various devices. However, the fragmented approaches across vendors result in a lack of cohesion, which remains to be overcome to establish an expected code of conduct within social norms.

Realising the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability

We cannot understate our belief in the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability, just as we argued at Bluetooth World in 2014. Should it not have been obvious before, yes our platform is “observing” everyone’s devices, yes we’re checking the rules (our platform cares), and yes we’re keen to benefit from the emergence of coherent etiquette across devices and vendors. Etiquette being an expected code of conduct within social norms, social interaction among us vendors and developers is paramount! Therefore, as a community of members of the Bluetooth SIG, perhaps if we improve our efforts to look out for one another (quite literally) and openly share our thoughts and concerns, as we’ve done here, we’ll expedite the emergence of a collective etiquette which is key to the widespread adoption of the first global standard for Active RFID!