Bluetooth's prime-time may well now be imminent, with the Internet of Things and the happy marriage of smart devices in smart homes set to sidle into people's lives incrementally, connected gadget by connected gadget.
Bluetooth is one of those smart, helpful technologies that has been around for years, patiently waiting for its time to shine. A bit of wireless communication here, some short-wave connections there, it’s been a reliable and promising technology since the late 1990s.
Whilst at CES 2016, held during the first week of January in Las Vegas, E&T attended the Discover Blue event, organised by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). The Bluetooth SIG is the body that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards and the licensing of the Bluetooth technologies and trademarks to manufacturers. Discover Blue was the SIG’s official pre-CES event, showcasing the latest products and innovations from its member companies and developers.
The cavalcade of Bluetooth-connected products on display covered pretty much every aspect of modern human existence, such as healthcare, body awareness, medication, self-improvement, entertainment, nutrition, sports, fashion and home security. The technology is turning up everywhere, in ever-more intriguing ways – as The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper says in a 2009 episode of the TV sitcom, “Everything is better with Bluetooth”.
Stepping up to meet the challenge and demands of its wireless standard becoming a star player in an increasingly connected world, the Bluetooth SIG recently laid out its road map for 2016. Addressing some of the key concerns about Bluetooth, the intention with the next iteration of the technology is to quadruple the wireless range and double the speed. Sounds like a fine plan.
We originally had a date in our diary to meet Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, during CES week to discuss the state of the Bluetooth art in 2016. Regrettably, amidst the chaos and confusion of CES (and due to a wee communications snafu on account of the paucity of freely available Wi-Fi around Las Vegas, baffling in itself) we passed like technological ships in the night.
Powell kindly agreed to reschedule our conversation and so we spoke post-CES, ahead of the Bluetooth SIG’s next major show – Bluetooth World, 15-16 March, in Santa Clara, California – to discuss CES 2016, the SIG’s road map and Bluetooth’s importance as a key driving technology in the potential for, and wider consumer adoption of, the Internet of Things (IoT).
E&T: What were your impressions of CES 2016, from the Bluetooth perspective?
Mark Powell: I think it was a fantastic event. I think you attended our media event the night before the show, which showcased the latest and greatest from our members? It's always a tremendously exciting thing to do when we put on that event because it truly showcases the breadth of technologies and products that are being developed using Bluetooth and what our members are up to and we get excited to do that.
What's interesting is that everyone is talking about the Internet of Things and Bluetooth has been forging a path on the Internet of Things for many years and of course most of the things are my things, they're connected to my smartphone, but the important thing to remember is that of all the technologies and organisations that are out there, Bluetooth is probably the only one that is in an ideal position to deliver and support the Internet of Things.
If you think forward to what the Internet of Things is going to mean, it's going to mean thousands of companies around the world developing thousands of different products that have all got to work together. That's the situation we have today, with everybody who's building Bluetooth wireless-audio products, headphones, speakers, headsets or fitness bands and health products. That kind of manufacturer and developer base and the support that's being provided, the technology and specification that's being provided to support that, that's what the Bluetooth SIG is all about. Those fundamental are what's going to make the Bluetooth SIG the most important technology we believe in the Internet of Things moving forward.
E&T: What new products excited you at CES 2016?
MP: I think there were quite a lot of exciting products coming in the space of the smart home. We've got a lot of products with lighting and being able to control lighting. Some products using the Mesh specification, which right now is, if you like, a proprietary layer on top of Bluetooth, but if you remember our road map announcement, later this year that will be a part of the Bluetooth specification. What that allows people to do is have light switches and light bulbs that are connected together and can work in concert or can relay messages to one another.
This is really perfect technology for the smart home. I was excited to see products coming that were supporting that. I think we've got a lot of products coming that are exciting in the space of healthcare. One of the honoured products at CES was a Bluetooth wireless EKG, which I think is exciting given heart health and issues around the world. A tremendous breadth of products - new musical instruments! – and just an amazing array of new products that our members are putting out. That's really what amazes me, the breadth and how many different segments Bluetooth technology is being used in.
E&T: That breadth was one of the key takeaways from CES: Bluetooth is appearing in an increasing number of places. Is this a dramatic upsurge in the last year or two? Has there been a noticeable adoption and deployment of Bluetooth in the last couple of years?
MP: We're certainly seeing very strong growth year on year. In 2015 there were over 19,000 different product models that were listed with us, which is I think a 30 per cent increase on the previous year. So there are definitely more product models being built. Are we surprised about that? Well, we're delighted, of course, but in a way it's kind of what we're aiming to do, to fuel that growth. We've got a really dynamic organisation that's adding the pieces of technology when they're needed, it’s focused on making things effortless for developers. That's the key here: why are so many companies developing these products? Because the Bluetooth SIG makes it easy for them to develop. And also we have an environment where if our member companies want to work on new things, we have an environment that supports collaborative activity in developing new specifications and Mesh is an excellent example of that. We think we're a very unique organisation, uniquely positioned that way, being dynamic and making things effortless and being collaborative. We think we're ideally positioned to be at the heart of the Internet of Things moving forward.
E&T: The Internet of Things is a phrase that a lot of people are hearing more about, consumers are talking about it. Obviously developers are always a few years ahead of consumers, so are you seeing consumers now equally embracing the concept?
MP: I think it's still fairly early. I think people are excited about different pieces. What we see happening is certainly pieces being developed. One example today, and I have one installed in my house, is a Bluetooth door lock. There are Bluetooth lights, as I mentioned earlier. There are Bluetooth thermostats to control heating and cooling. All of these things exist today and having wireless control of these things is exciting to people and they’re starting to implement it.
What's going to be central to the Internet of Things is linking those things together. For example, when I come home and I unlock the door, using the Bluetooth door lock, all of a sudden the right lights come on without me needing to do anything, the heating comes to a certain temperature and all of these things work in concert. Bluetooth is able to support that kind of linking together of things, so that they work in concert, using for example the Mesh technology so that they can all communicate with one another when I'm outside.
The opposite example is also true: when I leave the house and lock the door, the lights get turned off, the heating gets turned down to a minimum temperature etc. So we can see people buying individual pieces today and we think moving forwards, as the new pieces of Bluetooth technology get added, that it's going to become feasible to link all of these things together. That's going to provide the exciting experiences.
E&T: What are the competing technologies in this area?
MP: There's a better story to tell in terms of working in tandem. The white goods in your home, perhaps the dishwasher, the refrigerator, those types of products, are more likely to have a Wi-Fi connection. Some of the refrigerators that were on display in Las Vegas even had massive touchscreens and cameras inside. When you've got that kind of data being provided by your appliance or your device, then you're going to need a connection that has a much fatter pipe. Technologies like Wi-Fi are going to be important for that, but equally – and we see this more and more - there are going to be a lot of devices around the home that need battery power and Bluetooth is the ideal technology to have for battery-powered devices, particularly those that don’t actually have to send a lot of information.
If you can imagine a light switch, all that light switch needs to do is to say turn the light on, turn the light off. That's a tiny piece of information that is sent very infrequently and really all you need to do is wake the device up for the short enough time to be able to synchronise and send that information and then go back to sleep again. Bluetooth is ideal technology for that. We see ourselves working in concert with technologies like Wi-Fi that would be in other devices that are perhaps more geared around higher bandwidth, something that might have a video camera in, that sort of thing.
E&T: What might be the challenges ahead for Bluetooth?
MP: Moving forward, Bluetooth will also be able to be contacted from outside of the home. There are going to be gateway devices that include Bluetooth, routers that are in the home, the TV, or those additional boxes - Apple TV for example, Roku - those kind of boxes are going to have Bluetooth in and will connect to the Bluetooth devices in your home as well. So, it will be possible, we've already got the technology available to do this, and there were members actually showing this in Las Vegas, that you're able to connect to these sensors and devices from outside using gateways.
To answer the question about what's the challenge for Bluetooth moving forward, I think we've got to continue down our path of supporting an ever-growing base of members with even better tools. We have to continue to make the development path for developers super-smooth. The reason everybody's coming to build Bluetooth in to their products is not only because there are just so many Bluetooth products out there to connect to - billions - but it's really easy to develop. You don't have to invent a lot of software, there's code available for you to use, there's testing tools, those kinds of things. We're already on that path and we have to continue our momentum in bulding that.
E&T: What are the criticisms of Bluetooth? What do you often hear that you have to offer rebuttal to?
MP: Actually, I think one of the most interesting ones is an issue that we’ve addressed in the technology road map that we announced for this year. Later this year, the fundamental additions to the technology will make it travel that much farther. There'll be massive increases in range later this year and on top of that Mesh provides us with the ability to connect between devices. In the past, these are things that people have been critical of with Bluetooth and I think the important thing is that the organisation has stepped up and later on in the year there will be technology solutions that address those.
We believe Bluetooth is the ideal technology for the Internet of Things. It's already capable of supporting a massive number of developers, so they can effortlessly develop Bluetooth products, so they can collaborate together in developing new extensions to the technology and create a technology that's dynamic and adapting, adjusting to the needs of the market. This is Bluetooth. This is ideally positioned. This is what the Internet of Things needs.