Last week, Apple became the latest retailer to use its own iBeacon technology in a bricks-and-mortar retail environment. But the tech—which enables stores to beam messages to iOS device-toting patrons—is based on the existing low energy Bluetooth spec. So is there any reason you couldn't just build your own with a Raspberry Pi and Bluetooth dongle?
Nope! You can build your own indeed, and that's exactly what Tony Smith did recently. The El Reg writer made the equivalent of an iBeacon with a $50 Raspberry Pi and $20 Bluetooth 4.0 dongle, prepped the Pi with the Linux Bluetooth stack, BlueZ, and various USB development packages. Any curious tinkerer can follow Smith’s instructions to set up the beacon, then head to this Radius Networks write-up to script one's own advertising message. Tada!
The iBeacon beams up to 31-byte packets to "participating" iOS devices—in Macy’s case, anyone who downloaded their Shopkick-designed app. Each packet includes a 128-bit Universally Unique Identifier (UUID) keyed to the service (IDing the packet as Macy’s, say) along with two 16-bit numbers, a "Major" number (which might distinguish stores) and a "Minor" number (which might distinguish departments).
At least Macy’s is using a voluntary app to track you and provide useful information as it tracks your metadata: Previous tactics, like tracking your phone via its autobroadcasting Wi-Fi signature, are more nefarious. As we’ve previously pointed out, iBeacon’s microlocation services also allow for local authentication—which, combined with the iPhone 5S’s fingerprint scanner, has allowed Apple Store shoppers to scan and buy products through their iTunes account without ever talking to a store rep.
Having your own little iBeacon setup means that these shop features could be yours without running through Apple’s stringently closed product channels. Whether that amounts to pinging your iPhone-equipped kids with an annoying pop-up when dinner’s ready is up to you.