Gimbal Wants to Turn Vending Machines, Jukeboxes and Other Devices Into Beacons

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The San Diego-based beacon manufacturer is beginning to move toward licensing its firmware and cloud-based services to companies that could benefit by connecting more directly with their customers.

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Bluetooth beacon provider Gimbal announced this week that it is making its beacon firmware widely available, enabling any device with an embedded Bluetooth (4.0 or later) or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio to run Gimbal's firmware and access its security and geofencing services.

"We see this as an opportunity to sell our hardware where it makes sense," says Kevin Hunter, Gimbal's chief operating officer, "but also integrate our firmware into other things—everything from jukeboxes to ATMs to access points used in the retail or hospitality industry."

Gimbal's Kevin Hunter

In recent months Gimbal has formed a number of partnerships through which it is deploying its technology—sometimes both hardware and firmware, and other times firmware only—to support various businesses' customer outreach efforts. Ruckus Wireless, a location-based services company, announced this week that it will begin adding BLE radios running Gimbal's firmware to its FlexZone access points, which it sells to retailers and other businesses to track customers' movements via Wi-Fi—and now through Bluetooth, with the added ability to support smartphone applications.

This spring, Gimbal announced a partnership with Attract Media, a platform that provides a means for advertisers to message consumers through a beacon-based application. Attract Media's parent company, TouchTunes, offers a mobile app that consumers can use to select and pay for songs on Playdium, its Bluetooth-enabled jukeboxes. Through the partnership with Gimbal, Attract Media serves its customers' ads to consumers who use the Playdium app.

Hunter notes that there could be many ways in which hoteliers or other companies in the hospitality industry could leverage Gimbal firmware in order to turn devices, such as set-top-boxes or LED light bulbs, into beacons. Even devices that lack embedded Bluetooth modules could be turned into beacons, he says, by adding a BLE module via a USB dongle, though Gimbal does not make USB dongles. Such devices could be used to offer points or special offers to customers who are enrolled in a hotel's or travel operator's loyalty program and run that company's branded application on their phones.

Doug Thompson, the CEO of beacon software development firm dot3 and the publisher of the beacon industry blog BEEKn, says Gimbal's move toward licensing its firmware as a standalone product is significant since it is the first beacon manufacturer to do so, and because it allows the company to leverage its security protocol, which he says has always been one Gimbal's strengths in the industry.

Gimbal uses a process called rolling encryption, which means that the ID number that a Gimbal beacon emits is different every time. This prevents an unauthorized third party from accessing the beacon's specifications and, say, re-encoding the beacon with its ID and, therefore, what action is triggered on a customer's phone. (Such a hack, known as hijacking, could result in a shopper inside a Target store receiving special offers from Walmart, as a theoretical example. Thompson notes that no such major hijacking events have happened to date, but retailers certainly want to guard against them.)

According to Hunter, a device maker will have the ability to turn already-deployed Bluetooth-enabled devices into Gimbal beacons via a firmware upgrade, or by building the firmware into new products. While it is technically possible to use Gimbal's firmware with a beacon made by another manufacturer, he adds, that would most likely breach the beacon owner's contract with the beacon manufacturer. However, Hunter reports, Gimbal is actively pursuing partnership agreements with some beacon makers that would allow this.

Thompson thinks such an arrangement could lead to real benefits for a device manufacturer that might want to install another maker's beacon due to some physical attribute—such as a long read range or resilience to weather or other environmental conditions—but that might also want to leverage Gimbal's firmware and cloud-based services.

Thompson believes that a growing number of beacon makers will begin to license firmware as beacon prices fall. "When they first arrived [in the marketplace], beacons cost around $30 or $40 each," he states. "Now, they are as low as $8 each. So it's not necessarily the hardware itself that is the value—it's the firmware and cloud services that go with it."

And with more devices beginning to use Bluetooth technology, Thompson adds, "the definition of a beacon is changing."