Technology // Bluetooth Beacons

The Technology

See link below for an in-depth guide to Bluetooth beacon technology and general uses:

https://www.bluemaestro.com/ultimate-guide-bluetooth-beacons/

Summary

Bluetooth beacons are Bluetooth low energy transmitters which broadcast or ‘advertise’ their unique identifier to any nearby Bluetooth capable devices, such as a smartphone or tablet. When in close proximity to a beacon, or within a specified range, the receiving device can use this information to trigger a specific action or set of actions. Generally, beacons do not receive information from other devices so cannot store information about nearby devices.

Beacon Protocols

iBeacon – Apple protocol released in 2013. Stable but locked down. Works with both their own and Android devices but more stable on Apple devices.

Eddystone – Google’s open standard protocol released in 2015. Can be implemented without restriction and offers developers more access to features. Works on both iOS and Android.

AltBeacon – Open source specification that defines a message format for beacon advertisements. All features are available to developers for no cost but is an underdeveloped platform.

What Can They Do?

The Physical Web

  • Send notifications or URL’s to smartphones which are in range of the beacon. This has primarily been used by retailers to send offers to potential customers passing their stores, or provide information to people already inside.
  • Museums have also used these technologies in their virtual tours, either in the form of triggered audio or broadcasting a URL with information relevant to the section of the museum they are in.

Proximity

  • Beacons can be used to roughly determine a user’s position within a space. It is possible to roughly calculate a receiver’s distance from a beacon and you can work out their exact position within a space using triangulation.
  • This is not strictly a feature of the beacons themselves but the smartphone which is able to do the calculations based on radio strength.

Telemetry

  • A less common feature of this technology is to directly relay information from a beacon to a smartphone. Only a small volume of data can be transferred so this is mainly used for small data packets, such as weather // temperature reports.

For more examples of beacon use cases and in-depth case studies, see this page: https://lighthouse.io/beginners-guide-to-beacons/beacon-use-cases/


Pre-existing Use in Theatre

This talk by Dustin Freeman on his work on Joshua Marx’s ‘The Painting’ is the only example of Bluetooth beacon technologies use in a theatre production that I could find (there is no useful record of the production of ‘The Circle’ Dustin Mentions at the end of the talk).

https://hackaday.com/2015/12/18/immersive-theatre-via-ibeacons-with-dustin-freeman/

This production is useful experiment into this type of work and does an excellent job highlighting the issues they faced, potential workarounds and their ideas for the future of this type of work.

Notes on the Talk

  • Floodlight – theatre company.
  • “Audience given the illusion of control”

Dustin’s Experience with iBeacons

  • They work with scalers, not vectors. i.e they can roughly determine the distance but not direction.
  • There is no ‘look vector’ to tell which direction an audience member is facing.
  • For this show the entire experience with the iBeacon technology was within the phone, mainly consisting of listening to pre-recorded audio through headphones.
  • Triggers depended on where the phone was placed on the participant.
  • With this type of method, it was impossible to know what the ‘player’ was doing with an object. Book example – you pick it up and it tells you to turn to a page that directs you to another area of the room where it triggers another iBeacon.
  • You can set up different levels of triggers, distant cues and closer proximity cues.
  • What do you want the players experience to be? VS What do the players expect this experience to be like? (escape room time limit, or more casual)

My Thought’s on a Bluetooth Beacon System in Theatre

I would look to use Bluetooth beacons in a similar way to how audio events are triggered within a game. By using the radius of the signal as a type of box collider, it might be possible replicate some of the features of Wwise // Unity integration scripts such as ‘trigger enter’ (receiver enters the radius of a beacon) and ‘trigger exit’ (receiver exits radius). This would avoid the need to calculate the exact distance from a beacon, which would be advisable considering the margin of error (± 50% according to Dustin).

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I have seen examples using more of the sensors available in a smartphone device to better determine a position in space (see: https://estimote.com/) and, if this project were to develop to that point, this would be useful to more accurately trigger events or control RTCP’s.

As for connecting to my existing system, it would be possible to connect a phone to Pure Data by developing an app which transmits the beacon triggers through the Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol into the central system. Whether a new app would need to be developed for each show or a universal app could be created is an area which would need to be explored in more detail.

It is also possible to use Micro:bit’s as an Eddystone beacon:

https://lancaster-university.github.io/microbit-docs/ble/eddystone/

If objects in the space were already fitted with Micro:bit’s, these might be simultaneously be used as beacons. This offers designers an extra layer of interactivity, for example, the book object could be given a radius of ‘whispers’ which are triggered when the participant is within range to highlight it’s magical significance.

Can Bluetooth capable Arduino boards be used as a receiver?

Perhaps a Bluetooth Lilypad Arduino could be made into a wearable receiver that could be incorporated into the story of the show. By controlling where the receiver is placed on participants it might be possible to counter some of the triggering issues encountered by Dustin in ‘The Painting’.

Beacons could also provide further context to a show by broadcasting information to be displayed in the app such as story cues, suggestions or directions. They could also prompt audio cues which are reserved for individuals, which could be listened to in either traditional or bone conduction headphones.


Conclusion

Overall, this technology could significantly advance this project and is worth exploring in future experiments. Giving the system some sense of the surrounding space brings the immersive experience one step closer to a virtual world scenario where everything can be strictly monitored and adapted to. Further studies into ‘The Physical Web’ would also benefit this.


More Resources

 

 

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