With Bluetooth, the beacons can send their signals up to 100 metres.

Stuttgart - The wall between the digital world and the real one is about to get a bit thinner, with the smartphones we carry learning to home in on real world beacons that will give them signals to take online action ... sometimes without the owner even noticing. At the heart of this revolution are beacons. An army of them are primed to get the service up and running.

They are the real world sensors that spring to life when a smartphone is nearby.

The wireless signals they exchange can trigger functions like enabling automatic payments or providing information about a store's product.

On the flip side, all this interaction has the potential to turn customers into open books for merchants to read. If it goes as expected, everyday life will soon be seeing some radical changes.

“Beacons open up possibilities for entirely new businesses. It's going to be gigantic,” Suke Jawanda, the marketing head of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a group that oversees Bluetooth standards, told dpa.

With Bluetooth, the beacons can send their signals up to 100 metres. At their most basic, the only information they send is a signal saying, “Here I am!” along with a special identification - a universally unique identifier (UUID).

Simple beacons can only send, not receive, data and are about as big as a tube of lipstick equipped with a USB port at one end so they can be recharged.

They rely on Bluetooth low-energy technology, which means they can get by without much power.

Bluetooth SIG, which has more than 8 000 businesses under its umbrella, markets them as Bluetooth Smart. Many devices are sidestepping the beacons and communicating directly with smartphones already.

These include biometric armbands to measure movement and sleep to heart rate sensors for long-distance runners.

Some toothbrushes register how long a teeth-cleaning lasts and how much pressure was used while brushing.

PayPal, an eBay subsidiary, has begun testing whether the system can be used for payments, starting with 10 cafes and restaurants in Berlin.

A PayPal app connects the customer's account with the Orderbird payment system.

About three or four guests a day use this option, says Stephan Zuber, who owns the Du Bonheur cafe. But the majority remain cash customers.

Changing payment habits is “a long process that's just at its start.” Beacons could speed up the process.

With them and the appropriate apps, a customer could opt to be registered upon entering an establishment. Payment could be made without ever touching the smartphone, says PayPal manager Matthias Setzer. “Our vision is to make paying invisible.”

As a bonus, if the user allows it, information could be stored, so the next time the customer visits, whichever employee is there will be able to call up his name and shopping history the second his smartphone is recognised.

That could make it easier to provide advice on further purchases. Of course, such scenarios horrify people who object to the idea of being so exposed, with a consumption history saved for all to see.

“We don't share this information with anyone,” said Setzer. “Anyone who doesn't use it properly is cut off from the business.” And the customer always has the ability to choose which vendors he or she trusts with what information and who receives what automatically.

Apple also wants to rev up the smartphone experience with beacons. Of course, since it's Apple, its beacons are called iBeacons. They are supported by iOS 7, the company's operating system for iPhones and iPads.

The Apple version of the system provides some advantages.

With Google, market fragmentation between the various Google platforms means there are problems with Android version of the system.

Nonetheless, software developers are delighted by the possibilities. “Beacons are another step toward connecting the real and imaginary worlds,” says Rayko Enz, head of German software company SIC Software.

The cost for a beacon is set to drop below 4 euros (about R50), expects Jawanda. London's Oxford Street has already seen an entire group of merchants jump onto the bandwagon.

Beacons might also have an impact on everyday life, says computer scientist Christian Goosen, who recently presented a paper on the subject at the University of Ulm's Institute of Databases and Information Systems.

“One day, we'll all be able to wear armbands or implant beacons into ourselves so everyone can participate in the internet of things.” - Sapa-dpa