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.