Hospitals, Schools, Hotels Test Mist’s Virtual Bluetooth Beacons

By Claire Swedberg

The company says one of its devices can create unlimited virtual Bluetooth Low Energy (vBLE) beacons within a 2,500-square-foot area, sparing a store the expense of installing and maintaining battery-powered beacons, and enabling it to change those beacons' locations merely by updating the software settings.

Mobile and cloud-based technology startup Mist Systems, located in Cupertino, Calif., has developed a solution that creates "virtual Bluetooth Low Energy (vBLE) beacons" by using software algorithms and steerable antennas to identify the location of a user's BLE-enabled mobile phone.

The system features what Mist calls a Dynamic BLE Array, incorporated into a device that functions as multiple BLE beacons. The device, which the company refers to as a BLE access point, can typically cover a 2,500-square-foot area—which, according to Sudheer Matta, Mist's product VP, equates to the same amount of coverage provided by eight physical beacons in the same area.

The Mist BT 11 can be mounted on a ceiling to provision unlimited virtual beacons within a 2,500-square-foot area.

Approximately 50 companies in health care, retail or other industries are using, testing or preparing to test the technology. UCLA Health has deployed the Mist solution to help visiting researchers, students and patients navigate its Center for the Health Sciences complex. Stanford Law School, Bowdoin College and Ohio's Hope Hotel have each installed the system as well, to track the movements of individuals and assets.

The advantage of deploying the Mist solution, Matta reports, is that users can change the location at which push notifications occur (traditionally where beacons were installed), in the software, without needing to physically move beacons around a facility.

Mist offers two devices with the Dynamic BLE Array: the Mist BT11, which measures 203 millimeters by 203 millimeters by 40 millimeters (7.99 inches by 7.99 inches by 1.57 inches) and the Mist AP41, which is slightly larger at 215 millimeters by 215 millimeters by 52 millimeters (8.46 inches by 8.46 inches by 2.05 inches). Each device contains 16 directional antennas and a single omni-directional array for sending and receiving BLE transmissions, while the Mist AP41 can also serve as a Wi-Fi access point.

When functioning as a beacon, Matta says, the Mist BT11 or the Mist AP41 transmits eight Bluetooth beams. The number of virtual beacons, however, is unlimited. Each virtual beacon serves as an "engagement point" on a map, he explains. A virtual beacon is set up based on a position on the map, and the software identifies that location based on the beacon beams being detected, as well as on their received signal strength indicator (RSSI) measurements at that position. The BT11 and AP41 each use the Dynamic BLE Array technology, both to enhance transmission power and to produce directional beams.

Mist's patented vBLE technology works like this: A Mist software development kit (SDK) is integrated into an app running on a mobile device. When that mobile device receives a BLE signal transmitted by a BT11 or a AP41, the app's integrated SDK forwards that signal's RSSI information to the Mist Cloud software. The Mist Location engine, also operating in the cloud, calculates that mobile device's position, and then sends location and map information back to the mobile app running on that device. The app can determine not only the distance to a mobile device, but also that device's location on a map. By using directional antennas, Mist explains, the Mist Cloud software can pinpoint the location of a BLE-enabled phone or tablet with an accuracy of 1 to 3 meters (3.3 to 9.8 feet). This ability to pinpoint a phone's location can ensure that the Mist Cloud software knows when a doctor and patient are together, for instance, or the specific area of a store in which an individual is located.

Mist's software also includes a dashboard that provides a view of each virtual beacon's location, as well as the number of times a mobile phone received a beacon transmission. (Click on the above image to view a larger version.)

Several retailers are currently testing the technology to provide notifications and promotional information to customers. A consumer first downloads the store's app, which uses location-based data from Mist's content-management software, then receives notifications based on his or her location within the store.

For instance, a user who has downloaded the app can receive a welcome notification upon entering a store, and the app can then display information regarding promotions or special offers. The customer could utilize the app's wayfinding functionality to locate the department in which that specific merchandise is on sale.

In some deployments, if a user wants to speak with a sales associate, he or she can press a prompt on the app to request assistance. The app then identifies the sales representative closest to that customer, based on the beacon location data, and transmits a message to that employee, indicating that shopper's request and location.

If the retailer changes its promotions and wants to provide push notifications in different parts of the store, on a temporary basis, it can make changes to the virtual beacons simply by updating information in the software. (Traditionally, stores would have needed to physically remove a beacon from one location and re-install it at another if, for instance, they wanted to change a notification to a department that previously lacked a dedicated beacon.) This type of function is especially useful to stores with special seasonal offers. For instance, if a store is offering a special on kitchenware, it can select the location at which app users would receive a notification about that special, and then input the content it wants them to receive.

Mist's software also includes a dashboard that users can access to view data about each virtual beacon location, as well as the number of times a mobile phone received a beacon transmission.

Sudheer Matta, Mist's product VP

In a health-care environment, users are testing the technology to improve the patient experience. In this case, patients can download an app for a clinic or hospital that enables them to be identified as they enter a facility. When a patient arrives at the entrance, for example, his or her phone receives a beacon transmission and the app uses the Mist cloud-based software to identify that individual, as well as the phone's location. The hospital could then assign that patient to a room and forward the room number to his or her phone.

The patient can then use the beacon data to locate the specific room to which he or she is assigned. In this way, Matta says, the waiting room would not be necessary at all. "What we're doing is digitizing the patient experience, avoiding the wait time," he states.

Hospitals can use the data to help share information with patients, and to analyze how quickly a particular patient was seen by the staff (with personnel also being tracked via their Android or iOS devices). That information can not only help the facility identify bottlenecks, but also provide information required for billing purposes, such as the kind of care provided, based on which staff members were in the room with the patient at a given time, or which medical equipment was brought to the room the patient was occupying.

Because a single Mist BT11 or Mist AP41 device can generate multiple virtual beacons, Matta notes, a store is spared the expense of installing battery-powered beacons. What's more, he adds, employees need not walk around replacing those beacons' batteries or ensuring that a specific beacon is functioning.