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"Dances with iBeacons": Testing Radius Networks RadBeacons

Radius Networks RadBeacon USB and RadBeacon Tag with a quarter for size comparison

Although I'm not a developer by any stretch of the imagination, I find the concept of iBeacons to be fascinating. The idea of low-power Bluetooth beacons that can coax apps into providing information about something that's near them is very cool, and a while back I wrote about some apps available from Radius Networks that provided a way to start playing with the technology without investing in any physical iBeacons. Well, Radius Networks is now rolling out the hardware in the form of what it calls RadBeacons, and I recently had a chance to try out two models and configure them with their own unique names.

The US$29 RadBeacon USB (left in image at the top of this post) is a tiny USB dongle that can be plugged into any standard USB adapter for power, while the $39 RadBeacon Tag (the white tag in the middle of the top image) is a battery-powered tag that is perfect for those situations where power may be an issue.

Both the devices work with apps from Radius Networks as well as any other apps that are aware of iBeacons. The free RadBeacon app (universal, optimized for iPhone 5) is used to configure RadBeacon proximity beacons. You can scan for configurable RadBeacons with a single swipe gesture, and each discovered beacon displays its name, model, and ID. Tapping on a discovered beacon shows its name and advertised UUID identifier, major identifier, minor identifier, power value, rate setting, and transmit power setting.

To update any of those settings, you just enter a valid PIN (which you can also apply), then change the settings and hit Apply. There's also a way to calibrate the measured power of the beacon by holding it at a set distance away, then letting it go through a calibration process. Once calibrated, you can measure the proximity of the beacon with the app as well. When everything is set up the way you want it, it's possible to lock the device so that third parties can't reconfigure it.

The Locate for iBeacon app (free, universal, optimized for iPhone 5) is what you can use to locate those pesky RadBeacons (and other iBeacons). One thing I found odd about this app is that although I had set new names for a RadBeacon USB and a RadBeacon Tag, they still showed up in Locate for iBeacon as generic beacons with a name of Radius Networks 2F234454. Once you find a beacon, the distance to it is displayed. And for some inexplicable reason, the Locate app also includes a way to configure and calibrate the RadBeacons ... so why have two different apps?

For tagging movable items with an iBeacon, the RadBeacon Tag works best. It's battery powered, and has a hole in it through which something like a cable tie or wire can be passed to attach the tag to something. The RadBeacon app showed all of the regular info for the tag, adding the battery level as well. The batteries are replaceable.

What I was surprised with is just how accurate the proximity readings are on a properly calibrated beacon. This really speaks to how it will be possible for stores, museums and other venues to notify people within a short distance of a beacon of a product, piece of art, or whatever else you want them to look at in your app.

One thought I had while trying out the RadBeacons was that I'd love to see Geocaching figure out a way to work these into "the game." In other words, a geocacher could use GPS to get into the vicinity of a cache, then -- if they've been unsuccessful finding the cache by traditional means -- be able to ask for an iBeacon notification when they're right near the cache.

Likewise, curious would-be iBeacon fans can do things like purchase a few RadBeacons, then use apps like Proximitask (free) or the recently-updated Launch Center Pro ($4.99) to set up reminders that go off with you arrive at or leave a specific location. The latter app can even trigger IFTTT recipes, which opens up a whole new world of location-based automation.

Conclusion

While the Radius Networks apps aren't exactly perfect at this point in time, developers and other individuals interested in trying out iBeacon-based ideas can now do so without spending a lot of money. I highly recommend both the RadBeacon USB and RadBeacon Tag for experimentation, and would love to hear from TUAW readers who are coming up with innovative iBeacon solutions.

Rating: 4 stars out of 4 stars possible

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