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2009 – The year of Bluetooth low energy

January 4th, 2009 |  Published in Wireless Connectivity  |  6 Comments

 This year will see the arrival of a new short range wireless standard that is set to revolutionise the way that devices are made.  That’s not a new claim – I recall it being made for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Home-RF and DECT, amongst others.  Some succeeded massively, some struggled on and some failed.  This year sees another technology join the fold and I’m confident that it will make a bigger change that any that has preceded it.

 

The technology I’m talking about is called Bluetooth low energy.  Don’t be fooled by thinking it’s a variant of Bluetooth – that would be a mistake.  Although it’s part of the Bluetooth family of standards, and designed to coexist within an existing Bluetooth chip, it’s a totally new standard, designed from the bottom up to fulfil a new set of requirements.

 

Those requirements are to enable a new generation of products that can connect to mobile phones.  It covers everything from fashion accessories, watches, fitness and medical devices to office and security products.  The essential thing is that they can be low power, low cost devices that only need to send small amounts of data.  That allows them to be run off batteries that don’t need regular charging. In fact most of them will run for years on single coin cells.

 

As well as connecting to your phone as accessories, they’ll also be able to use the phone to send their data over your mobile network to a remote web service.  That’s where Bluetooth low energy becomes really powerful, as it allows your mobile phone to act as a gateway.

 

Internet Connected Devices

 

The power of a gateway is that it lets devices talk directly to web applications.  It’s expected that in the course of time all mobile phones with a Bluetooth chip will be able to function as a gateway.  That means that designers can start thinking about products around the home in a totally different way.  Instead of designing devices that never connect to anything, in the future everything can have the ability to connect to a remote service.

 

Today that may sound futuristic, or just stupid.  After all, we’ve never really recovered from some of the more ridiculous usage models, such as the Internet Fridge.  But internet connectivity can have big benefits.  It doesn’t mean that your toaster will spend its life looking for Facebook friends around the world.  What it does mean is that it can check its performance and adjust itself to keep on working the way it should.  That should make it more efficient, last longer and potentially be cheaper to manufacture.  In the same way that microprocessors have become endemic in everything we buy, so will an internet connection, making goods more reliable and more energy conscious.

 

Designed for success

 

Although I’ve stated that Bluetooth low energy is a totally new standard, it’s a bit more subtle than that.  Bluetooth low energy has been cleverly designed so that it can use most of the parts of an existing Bluetooth chip.  So although its radio works in a different way to the current Bluetooth radio, it can reuse much of the same circuitry.  Think of it as a multilingual radio that can talk different languages.  That means that it adds almost nothing to the cost of making a current Bluetooth chip.  Because of that, mobile phone manufacturers, who already ship over a billion Bluetooth enabled phones every year are keen to use these newer chips, as they bring additional applications to the handsets.  These are known as dual mode chips, as they support both current and low energy Bluetooth.  They’re not as low power as a stand-alone Bluetooth low energy chip, but they don’t need to be, as the phone needs charging regularly anyway.

 

In parallel, specialist low power silicon companies are making the dedicated Bluetooth low energy chips which will run off a coin cell.  These are destined for the vast array of products that will connect to the next generation of mobile phones which incorporate the dual-mode chips.

 

The beauty of this approach is that within a short time of its launch, there will be a critical mass of hundreds of millions of mobile phones that support Bluetooth low energy devices and which can act as gateways.  That will provide a market impetus which could make this one of the fastest roll-outs of technology ever.

 

During the coming months, I’ll be explaining the features of Bluetooth low energy and how it can be applied in a wide range of devices.  It has the potential to be the next major change to product design.  The range of applications is numerous, particularly in healthcare and sports.  To be successful, designers will need to start thinking about the web services that devices need to make them more compelling.  It’s going to be an exciting year.

 

6 comments ↓

#1 phil on 01.15.09 at 10:11 pm

is the Wavenis protocol ( recently transfered to an organisation for making it an open standard ) a potential competitor, compatible, or even a basis for this Ultra Low Power Bluetooth ?

#2 Nick on 01.16.09 at 3:36 pm

It’s one of many wireless protocols that have been designed for specific applications. Wavenis was developed by Coronis as a proprietary radio, whose main success has been in automated meter reading. It typically runs at the lower frequencies of 868MHz in Europe and 910MHz elsewhere. That gives it an edge on range over 2.4GHz solutions, helped by a good receive sensitivity.

In the recent past, Coronis opened up their protocol as an “open standard”, not least to help them compete against ZigBee and Z-Wave, the latter of which did much the same thing. However, it still only has one silicon vendor making compliant chips, which means it can’t realistically claim to be other than a proprietary solution.

Is it really a competitor? I’d say no. That’s not to say it won’t be successful in it’s own niche, nor that it can expand to others. But it does not have the traction, nor the breadth of applications to get incorporated into mobile phones or PCs. That means that its volumes are unlikely to exceed low tens of millions per year, whereas Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth low energy (formerly Wibree) will exceed billions.

Thanks for the question. I’ll expand on the differences between standard and proprietary wireless specifications in a future post.

#3 Jaye on 03.31.09 at 4:55 pm

Do you have an intelligent guess as to when new low-energy standards for Bluetooth will be applied to Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids? In the present, such aids go through batteries or require recharging batteries at a rapid rate.

#4 Nick on 03.31.09 at 9:17 pm

Bluetooth low energy doesn’t support voice, but is designed for sending discrete “lumps” of information, such as temperature, time, blood pressure, etc., so it won’t be of use in hearing aids.

However, the existing Bluetooth standard is evolving and has introduced some new power saving techniques, which should help battery life for hearing aids and headsets. Genreally it takes some time for manufacturers to get hold of the latest chips and incorporate them into their products, so you probably won’t see them on the market for the next twelve months.

#5 Jaye on 04.02.09 at 2:33 am

Thanks so much. Your answer makes sense to me though I am high-tech challenged, for sure! Do you know of a way I can find out when the new chips you speak of finally are incorporated for hearing aids (Bluetooth tech is actually in an accessory for the hearing aid, as I understand it)?

#6 Nick on 04.02.09 at 4:14 pm

I’m afraidiI don’t. Every manufacturer has their own time cycles for upgrading exsiting designs and bringing out new ones. In the medical world these tend to be longer than for consumer electronics, mobile phones and PC, which are all eager to include the latest technology, so you may need to be patient.

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About Creative Connectivity

Creative Connectivity is Nick Hunn's blog on aspects and applications of wireless connectivity. Having worked with wireless for over twenty years I've seen the best and worst of it and despair at how little of its potential is exploited.

I hope that's about to change, as the demands of healthcare, energy and transport apply pressure to use wireless more intelligently for consumer health devices, smart metering and telematics. These are my views on the subject - please let me know yours.

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