iOS 7 iBeacons: An unsung feature with immense promise

While the world is getting up to speed on iOS 7's more visible features like Control Center and the dazzling parallax effects, there's one feature that hasn't gotten a lot of attention -- iBeacons. TidBITS author Michael Cohen wrote a great piece this week that talks about the feature and what it can do for iOS device owners in the future.

iBeacons was just a word on a slide at WWDC 2013, but as Cohen points out, it has the potential to provide some amazing functionality. To quote Cohen, "Apps can use iBeacons to answer the question 'Where am I?' not in terms of a location on a map, like GPS does, but in terms of where the device is relative to another device. Specifically, where it is relative to another device acting as an iBeacon."

An iBeacon is a radio that can be placed anywhere, and when an iOS device gets near it, it can estimate how far apart the device and iBeacon are. Any iPhone 4S or later, and any third-generation iPad or later, has the ability to be an iBeacon through the use of Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

As Cohen explains it, BLE devices are battery-friendly and can run for weeks without recharging. So how could they be used? Well, a store could set up iBeacons in each department or aisle, so you could use a store directory app and get in-store directions to something you're looking for (are you listening, Home Depot?). Museums could offer tour apps, and Cohen even imagines a future version of Find My iPhone that would work inside a house, finding that iPhone that slipped between couch cushions.

Third-party standalone iBeacon devices will start at about US$100 each, and Cohen posits that the price may drop quickly and significantly due to the popularity of iOS. Right now, there's really nothing that takes advantage of iBeacons, but this is a capability of iOS 7 that is just waiting for the right app to come along.