18 Jun 2010

The future of Bluetooth: where do we go now?

Robin Heydon of CSR, looks at the latest developments in Bluetooth technology including ultra low power Bluetooth and Bluetooth 3 and asks about the future.

Since Bluetooth was established in the early 1990s, it has grown into the most successful short-range wireless technology in use today. Bluetooth already features in over 50% of mobile handsets in Western Europe, and the number of Bluetooth accessories and gadgets now available is staggering.

Bluetooth is now at a crossroads. The potential market for wireless is immense - but different new applications have requirements that necessitate differing technologies.

The health and medical, sports and fitness, as well as the home automation market, and even devices such as watches are requiring a much lower power form of wireless technology. At the other end of the scale the potential applications for a higher speed technology are vast, from digital cameras, TVs and PCs, to PDAs, laptops and even smartphones.

As a result Bluetooth is now moving into two new distinct areas: the Bluetooth v3.0 standard is taking on the market for consumer devices that deal with large data files; while its ultra low power sister technology, Bluetooth low energy, is opening wireless connectivity to devices and applications that could have never considered it before.

Low power Bluetooth

Taking the lead for low power wireless is Bluetooth low energy, formerly known as Ultra Low Power (ULP) or Wibree. Already successfully demonstrated by CSR in a mobile handset, Bluetooth low energy consumes tiny amounts of power - the battery life of devices with this technology could run into years rather than days. This opens up Bluetooth and wireless to a whole range of products that been previously discounted due to short battery lives. For example, Bluetooth low energy could be put into heart monitors, trainers, weighing scales and watches to synchronise and upload data to your phone or laptop. The technology uses fewer frequencies (3 rather than 32) to make connections compared with standard Bluetooth, resulting in significantly lower power consumption when connectable.

Bluetooth Ultra Low Power Watch

Bluetooth Ultra-Low Power Watch

Bluetooth low energy is an attractive proposition for manufacturers because of its compatibility and interoperability with standard Bluetooth. Unlike other technologies such as Zigbee, Bluetooth low energy can build on the existing billions of Bluetooth devices already in the market. Bluetooth low energy is being added to existing Bluetooth silicon for negligible cost and with no need for redesign. Compared to alternative technologies this is a massive advantage.

Bluetooth and mobile phones

The mobile phone is increasingly becoming an important piece of technology with a role in many aspects of our lives. Smartphones already support email and internet access, sharing information with PCs or other phones, satellite navigation, and even for receiving location-specific information in restaurants and stations.

If Bluetooth low energy is integrated into watches, lights, central heating thermostats, heart rate monitors, microwaves, even running shoes, as predicted by the Bluetooth SIG, then people will be able to coordinate all of these applications through a single 'remote control' - their mobile phone. For most people, a mobile phone is almost always within arm's reach, if you want to control the lights and heating you'll reach for your mobile. Bluetooth low energy is the best technology to provide this sort of connectivity.

Low energy can also enable gateways from small devices such as weighing scales, out onto the internet via these same mobile phones. This not only increases data revenues for operators but also connects your devices to websites and the internet to your devices. When everything is connected, using low energy, everything can be monitored and controlled from almost anywhere.

What about the higher speed data transfer? When Bluetooth was established in the early 1990s it had a data rate of just 1Mbps, which has now evolved into v2.1+EDR that offers up to 3Mbps. However, modern smart phones can take 6 megapixel photos (with even higher resolution camera phones on the way) and feature high-resolution video camera functions, meaning files on mobile phones are constantly increasing in size. Also the potential for wireless in devices such as cameras and PDAs has always been restricted by the data rates offered by Bluetooth and the battery life restraints of other technologies.

Bluetooth 3

With this in mind Bluetooth v3.0 was launched late last year and will ultimately allow the wireless transfer of large files such as music and video to and from devices that were previously limited to transferring smaller files, as anything larger would have taken forever and drained the battery if using standard Bluetooth. This works by using a Wi-Fi radio to transfer the larger file, but the proven low-power Bluetooth radio to monitor for and establish the connection.

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About the author

Robin Heydon is the Global Standards Architect for CSR. He started at CSR in 2000 working as a software engineer in the Bluetooth firmware group. He has many years of experience in both embedded systems development, networking systems, as well as wireless technology. He has held the position of Chair of the Bluetooth Architecture Review Board and the Chair of the Core Specification Working Group, as well as a number of other groups within the Bluetooth SIG.

CSR plc is a leading provider of multifunction connectivity, location and audio platforms. CSR's technology portfolio includes Bluetooth, GPS, FM, Wi-Fi (IEEE802.11), UWB, NFC and other technologies to enable silicon platforms that incorporate fully integrated radio, baseband and microcontroller elements. CSR's Connectivity Centre is designed to enhance the user experience with mainstream mobile devices by intelligent integration of multiple wireless connectivity and location-awareness technologies. CSR's Location Platforms are complemented by wireless connectivity and multimedia capabilities for high-volume mobile consumer devices and commercial applications.

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