Friday, 28 February 2014

Evaluating the BlueCats Starter Pack: Part 1 - iBeacons

I've been evaluating the BlueCats micro-location solution for the last month or so and thought it was about time I shared some of my observations. The BlueCats solution comprises beacon hardware, a server side application that provides administration and analytics functionality, and an SDK for integration with mobile apps.

I'll leave the other components of the system for future posts and start with the component that first caught my eye - the Bluetooth LE compliant beacons.

The beacons are approximately 7cm in diameter (excluding "ears"), 2.5 cm in depth and according to the office postal scales they weigh 93 grammes with batteries fitted. As you''ll see from the photo below I was shipped both black and white units.

Each beacon is powered by 2 AA batteries and the BlueCats FAQ states that a set of batteries will last "at least 3 years". This is a good thing, as you'll want to mount these where they cannot be easily removed or tampered with.

I personally like the design of the beacons, though I imagine the cat motif could strike those of a particularly serious disposition as perhaps a little whimsical for a production environment. They appear to be made of ABS plastic and feel fairly robust; I'm not sure how they'd fare in a drop test and, given replacements would need to travel all the way from Australia, I don't feel inclined to find out.

A litter of BlueCats

You'll see from the middle beacon in the above photo that BlueCats have attached a handy label to the rear of each device showing the beacon's major and minor IDs, which is a nice touch and useful for reference purposes when testing. One of my beacons was actually mislabeled, but it was nothing that couldn't be fixed quickly with a sharpie pen.

Beacons can be permanently installed by attaching a back plate to a wall, or other surface, and then fixing a beacon on to it (the flat round object in the bottom left corner of the photo is a back plate). Adhesive strips or magnets are also good options and BlueCats thoughtfully include a few velcro strips in the box. A beacon is fixed to a back plate by presenting the unit at the correct angle and then twisting to clip it securely into place.

One slight gripe I have with the back plate design is it's easy to inadvertently put the plate on the wrong way round. The back plate will stay in place but will not be held securely, so the beacon could fall or be easily knocked off if it were fixed to a wall in this orientation. Of course the solution to this is not to fit it incorrectly in the first place, but some visual indicator might be helpful.

Putting aesthetics aside, the key question is obviously how the beacons perform. I've tested them with BlueCats' own demo application, with Radius Networks' iBeacon Locate and with my own Android based demo application (leveraging the Radius Networks SDK) and experienced no issues. Performance is consistent and is on a par with my Raspberry Pi test beacon, and with iBeacons I've had running on an iPhone and iPad.

The sample application and SDK are currently iOS only, so if you're interested in integrating an Android app with the BlueCats ecosystem your options are limited. More on this when I crack open the SDK.

Having validated the beacons it was time to test them with the BlueCats Enterprise Platform (an evaluation account is included in the start pack). I'll let you know how I got on in a future blog post.
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