This week, at the Bluetooth annual All Hands Meeting in Seattle, the final draft of the new Bluetooth low energy specification was made available. Last December, the core specification for the low energy radio was adopted, allowing silicon vendors to start their production process, so that chips would be available as soon as the rest of the specification is adopted. This week’s release allows software and application developers to begin work on designing the new ecosystem of products that will be use Bluetooth low energy.
Outside the confines of the technical working groups, Bluetooth low energy is still a fairly well kept secret. Yet it has the potential to overtake Bluetooth usage in just a few years, growing to a volume of multiple billions of chips per year. It is the only wireless technology that has the potential to challenge and surpass the shipment volumes of cellular. Yet even within the Bluetooth community, there are many that have not yet understood this potential.
One of the reasons for that lack of understanding is that Bluetooth low energy is a wireless standard for a new generation of applications. Every previous wireless standard comes from the mindset of being a cable replacement which connects devices that never change their behaviour. That is true even if there’s a mesh involved. And it’s the way that most products were designed until a year or two ago.
Two things have changed that. The first is the concept of machine-to-machine communications where products connect directly to the Internet. The second is the emergence of the Apps store, where handset owners can download and install new features every day. Bluetooth low energy has a new architecture that fits both of these models. Even more importantly, it allows them to converge. As such, it is the first wireless technology designed for the second decade of this century. Here’s why…
Today almost no products in the consumer space are designed that connect to the internet. It may be possible to connect them to a PC and from there to a web application, but they invariably look as if the internet connection is an afterthought. In the future, as it becomes simple to make devices connect and communicate with a web application we will see some fundamental changes. Designers will be able to consider the web connection as a core part of its functionality. Without it the product will be as useless as it would be without its power supply. A few companies have pioneered this approach using Wi-Fi, notably the Nabaztag rabbit, the Withings scale and the Chumby radio alarm but none have yet made it to the mainstream, not least because they’re still difficult to set up.
Bluetooth low energy promises to change that. From a performance point of view, it’s optimised for very low power devices, that can run from coin cells for months or years. It is limited to small amounts of data, but it compensates by providing a way for products to automatically connect to the net. Moreover, it’s very small, so it can be squeezed into almost anything we user, or even wear.
It makes internet connectivity easy by allowing a device to be pre-programmed with the web site or service it needs to connect to. Once it is paired to a phone or another gateway device, it asks the gateway to provide a secure link to that website. From that point, the gateway acts like a pipe, allowing the device and web application to communicate with each other. Every time the device has data to send, it just sends it.
It’s a scheme that means that almost any device can be designed to be web connected. There are some obvious first examples, such as sports and fitness equipment, smart meters and consumer healthcare products. In some cases they will connect via a mobile phone, in others through a home gateway. In areas like home automation and smart energy, Bluetooth low energy offers some real advantages. The radio has been redesigned to improve the range, but retains the Adaptive Frequency Hopping of Bluetooth. That makes it very robust against interference in the 2.4GHz band, something that is a major concern to smart meter manufacturers.
Although for many users, the phone will act as a transparent pipe, Bluetooth low energy also provides the phone with information that helps it choose the best downloadable applications for the device. So rather than the user having to work out which applications work with their new product, the phone can interrogate it and automatically fetch a list of those it knows will work. Making it easy is an important tool in making those products fun and desirable.
For users it opens up a whole new world of accessories that can work with their phone. For operators it allows them to move past the handset and offer services that no longer need the user to touch the keypad of their handset.
And that’s just the first step. As designers start to understand that they can embed sensors into all sorts of devices, we’ll see innovative new products that measure and do things we’d not expected. In healthcare, that may be by adding sensors to everyday objects. For the socially networks, that may be beer glasses that automatically tot up your consumption on your Facebook page. For product design it will signal a step change in design possibilities similar to that which came with the introduction of the microprocessor.
Members of the Bluetooth SIG (and that’s over 13,000 of the world’s largest companies) can access the specification now. If you’re not a member, it’s free to join at www.bluetooth.org. The chip companies are confident that they’ll have development kits available by the summer, so now’s the time start thinking about what an internet connection would mean for your product.