Fifty Shades of Bluetooth

April 13, 2017

Part two of our three part series.

We recently sent three L4 Digital representatives to Bluetooth World, a two-day event in California billed as the definitive place to celebrate the successes of Bluetooth technology while defining what’s next. Many of L4 Digital’s projects include an element of Bluetooth tech so we sent reps from product management, development, and project management to scope out the scene. Each brings a unique perspective to this week’s three-part summary of Bluetooth World 2017.

Bluetooth and its many capabilities


Bluetooth means a lot more than wireless audio these days. A Bluetooth-enabled device might also act as a remote control, payment mechanism, or a beacon to the Physical Web. With the arrival of Bluetooth 5, the possibilities become greater yet. I was in the dark about many of these uses before my visit to Bluetooth World this year. Now that my eyes are open, I want to share my Bluetooth-hued findings with you.

Bluetooth Beacons

When you scan for Bluetooth devices, you are looking for “advertising” signals which tell you how to pair to your device. Over the last couple of years, people have started packing more than just pairing information into these signals, repurposing these broadcasts into Beacons.

iBeacons

Apple was among the first companies to define a protocol for having Bluetooth devices broadcast additional data to the world. The iBeacon protocol broadcasts a unique ID registered with Apple and a particular app. If your iOS device detects an iBeacon signal, it searches for an app registered to handle that id. If an app is found, you will get a notification prompting you to further interact with the Bluetooth device via the app.

Eddystone and the Physical Web

Another beacon protocol is Google’s Eddystone. Rather than just a UUID only understandable by iOS apps, the Eddystone protocol allows a Bluetooth device to broadcast a specific URL to the world. If you are able to detect and understand Eddystone beacons, you are tapping into what Google calls the Physical Web. Rather than limited to a QR-esque informational URL, nodes in the Physical Web indicate there may be a ‘smart’ device nearby.  The beacon’s URL might direct you to an app which allows you to directly control the device.

If you have the Chrome browser installed you already have the tools needed to explore the Physical Web around you. Simply navigate to Chrome -> Settings -> Privacy and turn Physical Web on!

Beacons, Beacons Everywhere, But not a Useful Link

There are many use cases that call out for beacons. Marketers can alert users to active sales, venues can provide easily accessible information, and smart devices can instruct users to interact with them. However, if a user opens up their Physical Web browser and has to wade through a sea of beacons to find the one they want, these experiences come to a grinding halt.

Smart Parking Meter

Sometimes beacon creators have a strong incentive to reduce beacon clutter. For example, in ARM’s smart parking meter prototype they envision hundreds, if not thousands, of smart parking meter devices all within the same parking structure. You certainly don’t want to scroll through every unrelated beacon in an attempt to find the spot you roll up to. ARM solved this problem by using optical sensors and directional antennas to ensure each smart meter only broadcasts its beacon in the right situation and only towards a narrow range.

Bluetooth enabled smart parking meters

Other use cases might have opposite incentives. A retail store might want to broadcast its deals from one end of the mall to the other. If every shop does this the Physical Web soon becomes an unusable repository for SPAM. Hopefully, people will use this technology responsibly and avoid this tragedy of the commons.

Bluetooth 5

Not only have the ways we use Bluetooth expanded, but Bluetooth technology itself has also been changing. The last major Bluetooth technology update was Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).  This allowed devices to communicate with limited bandwidth using very little battery life-A BLE beacon may be able to last years. Now the next major update is here — Bluetooth 5!

The main selling points of Bluetooth 5 are increased range and speed, all while using even less battery life. It boasts a 2x speed increase (up to 2Mbps) and 4x range increase (up to 200 meters line of sight, or 40 meters indoors). These increases cannot be realized together however. Transferring data at 2Mbps will actually decrease your range relative to BLE, and bandwidth at 200 meters will be far less than 2Mbps. Still the versatility of the connection makes it a very appealing option. A device can broadcast availability at long ranges, and dynamically switch to a higher bandwidth connection as a user gets closer.

Bluetooth 5 also adds mesh network support. Networks of sensors and devices can now relay messages over low energy bluetooth back to a central hub which does the power intensive task of uploading data to the cloud. Along with the increases in range and battery life, Bluetooth 5 is an obvious player in the next generation of smart homes, venues, and cities.

Final Thoughts

The metaphorical Bluetooth World was larger than I had originally imagined and Bluetooth 5 seems to ensure it will only grow larger. At the physical Bluetooth World conference, the number of interesting Bluetooth-enabled devices such as basketballs, shoes, and key rings just seemed to scratch the surface of exciting new Bluetooth applications. I am eagerly awaiting the next wave of Bluetooth 5 products. Until then, you can find me somewhere in the Physical Web.

Part 1: Making The Connection: The Bluetooth User Experience

Part 3: Bluetooth, Beacons, and Beyond  

Ed Williams

Ed is a developer at L4 Digital. He has been building mobile apps since the days of the iPhone 3G and the Android G1. He continues to be excited by the progress in mobile technology and enjoys creating apps that leverage the latest advances. When not engaged in the digital word, Ed enjoys hiking, gardening, and a good beer.

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Fifty Shades of Bluetooth
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