Qualcomm releases Gimbal sensors for short-range tracking

The company uses Bluetooth to build location-based marketing systems

Qualcomm has made its Gimbal sensors or "proximity beacons" commercially available as part of the company's context aware platform, which lets, for example, retailers see when a customer has entered a store.

A mobile app can be enabled to look for the beacon's transmission. When it's within physical proximity to the beacon and detects it, the app can notify the user of location-relevant content, promotions, and offers, according to Qualcomm.

The beacons use Bluetooth Smart technology to communicate with smartphones and tablets at distances of up to 50 meters. To allow companies to integrate Gimbal with their apps, there is a dedicated SDK (software development kit). The beacons support iOS today with planned support for Android. The Gimbal package also includes a management platform.

Qualcomm isn't the only company that sees big potential for this kind of location-based marketing -- Apple rolled out its iBeacon location services technology, which is also based on Bluetooth, to its 254 U.S. stores, it confirmed Friday.

The software needed for iBeacon to work is included in iOS 7, but users also have to give the app permission for the technology to work.

Just like Apple, Qualcomm is aware there are grave privacy concerns with these kinds of platforms, and underlines that Gimbal has "consumer friendly opt-in and opt-out privacy controls designed to protect the consumer's personal information" which have been certified by TRUSTe.

But users still have to be mindful -- the platform allows retailers to see "who stopped by and how long they stayed," Qualcomm said. The Gimbal profile also lets retailers tailor content based on places consumers visit and apps they used, it said.

Gimbal proximity beacons are available in two models, Series 10 and Series 20, which cost from US$5 and $10 each. The Series 10 beacons have a battery life of many months or up to a year and Series 20 units have a battery life of 1 to 3 years, according to Qualcomm.

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