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Nordic Semiconductor launches reference design for Bluetooth Smart beacons

Oslo, Norway – April 8, 2014 – Ultra low power (ULP) RF specialist Nordic Semiconductor ASA (OSE: NOD) today announces the release of a reference design for Bluetooth® Smart beacons based on Nordic’s multiple award-winning and class-leading nRF51822 multiprotocol Bluetooth Smart and proprietary 2.4GHz System-on-Chip (SoC). Bluetooth Smart beacons are low-cost, low-power Bluetooth low energy wireless transmitters that can advertise their location to Bluetooth Smart Ready smartphones in close proximity.

The nRF51822 Beacon Kit allows developers and engineers to develop their own beacon applications using Apple’s iBeacon™ standards, or create their own beacons based on their own specifications using Bluetooth Smart. This kit is an ideal starting point for OEMs and ODMs to begin development of beacon hardware to be used together with associated back-end services that they will typically offer as complete beacon solutions to their customers. 

The kit works straight out of the box with companion smartphone apps for iOS and Android (4.1/4.3) smartphones. The firmware is available as source code from Nordic and allows example beacon scenarios to be set up quickly and easily to test out product ideas. This kit leverages the ability of the nRF51822 SoC to support full Over-The-Air Device Firmware Upgrade (OTA-DFU) enabling all beacon firmware to be updated in-situ in a transparent manner.

The Android and iOS apps have a use-case scenario based around paintings in an art gallery. The content of these apps is very quickly and easily modified and added to, so as to create as rich and populated a user environment as desired. The example scenario is easily tailored to whatever the particular application may be, for example retail and public information. By adding contextual files (for example text and images) to the smartphone app a realistic use-case example can be created. 

nRF51822 Bluetooth Smart Beacon Kit features:

  • Ultra small form factor beacon (20mm diameter);
  • Powered by CR1632 coin cell battery;
  • iOS App;
  • Android App;
  • Source code for beacon firmware and smart phone apps;
  • Support Over-The-Air Device Firmware Upgrade (OTA-DFU).

The future of beacons has many exciting possibilities such as indoor micro-location or ‘Indoor GPS’. The major use case currently is for ‘contextual awareness’ providing users with information relating their proximity to a Point of Interest (POI). While the beacon itself relays only its identity, it is the smartphone, through the use of an app or direct services, which provides all the information that the user can access that relates to the particular beacon’s location. The range of use-case scenarios for beacons is correspondingly virtually unlimited, and could include special deals at retail stores, products available in stock, exhibits in public galleries and museums, train and bus terminals, and shopping list reminders.

In operation, Bluetooth Smart beacons use advertising packets that include fields to indicate the beacons’ identity. The smartphones use internal Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) to estimate distance between handset and beacons. Whilst beacons themselves only relay advertising to the smartphones and not contextual information, the smartphones use the advertising packets to determine the beacon’s identity (using, for example, the phone app), and decide upon the information and/or actions that should be associated with that beacon’s location. Permitted actions will vary between phone vendors, depending on imposed limitations, but may include audible alerts, vibrations, and triggering of other apps.

The nRF51822 Beacon Kit employs Nordic-developed hardware, firmware, and software and supports both iOS 7 and Android (4.3/4.1) operating systems. As each brand and model of smartphone exhibits different RSSI levels (due to electromagnetic variations stemming from, for example, the individual casing enclosure or antenna employed) the nRF51822 Beacon Kit has a tuning function that allows consistent performance regardless of phone model.

The introduction of Apple’s iBeacon service in 2013 has generated great interest in beacons and many stores now want to leverage the possibilities of contextual marketing. Apple Stores began rolling out iBeacons in 2013 that work with the Apple Store App. This was the first introduction of iBeacon technology on a large scale bringing an even richer consumer experience to shopping at the Apple Store. The nRF51822 Beacon Kit can be configured for iBeacon compatibility. Membership of Apple’s “Made For iPhone” (MFI) program is mandatory for iBeacon development. 

The nRF51822 Beacon Kit is a fully functioning demonstrator of Bluetooth Smart beacon technology. All design files are also available from Nordic and allow for customization to a designer’s requirements.

“Beacons represent a use case that has an immediate draw to the commercial world,” comments Thomas Embla Bonnerud, Nordic Semiconductor’s Director of Product Management. “Marketing has become progressively more directed and personalized over the last few years and the use of beacons takes that shift a stage further. For instance, consumers can now be made aware, in real time, of items they need to make a recipe, of special offers on products, and whether items are in stock. The possibilities are limitless. Additionally contextual awareness can be brought to environments such as museums and railway stations where individuals have a need to pick up location-based information.

“Nordic Semiconductor has always led the field in cutting-edge application support for developers with ultra low power wireless. With the nRF51822 Beacon kit we are continuing that track record for Bluetooth Smart beacons.” 

The nRF51822 Bluetooth Smart Beacon Kit includes one beacon and full access to software and design files. It is available from April 8 and will retail for $29.95. Contact Nordic Semiconductor for more information.

A video of the nRF51822 Bluetooth Smart Beacon Kit in action can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5SpUnJTuk8&feature=youtu.be.

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