New Bluetooth standards target low-power devices

Watches, heart monitors may benefit from emerging technology

Bluetooth may soon be used to monitor heart rates.

Although Bluetooth technology is commonly used today for syncing up mobile devices with headsets or for wirelessly networking PCs with mice and printers, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is working on two new standards that will make the technology both faster and more energy-efficient. Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, says the specifications will greatly expand the types of applications that can utilise Bluetooth for wireless communications.

The low-energy specification, which Foley says should be completed by the end of the year, will enable Bluetooth technology for use on devices such as watches and heart-rate monitors, that require less energy than cellphones or PCs.

"The watch industry is extremely excited about this low-energy Bluetooth specification," Foley says. "The use of watches has been declining because people are using their mobile phone as their watch now. For the watch industry, they can leverage the mobile phone platform by syncing it up with your wristwatch. So for instance, if someone calls you on your mobile phone, your watch will serve as the caller ID and let you know who is calling."

Nick Jones, an analyst at Gartner who recently named the new Bluetooth specifications as the most important wireless technology to watch over the next two years, says that having a low-energy option for Bluetooth makes it the perfect technology for sensors that use relatively little energy and that spend a lot of time in standby mode. With low-energy Bluetooth technology installed, Jones says, batteries on the sensors can be designed to last for years.

"The low energy Bluetooth standard will open up a lot of possibilities," he says. "With the new low energy mode there is the potential to build sensors that can talk to your mobile phone and be controlled remotely, such as the thermostat in your house."

The other major new Bluetooth specification will be a high-speed standard that Foley says will dramatically enhance users' ability to zap data around their devices. For instance, the new specification will let users wirelessly send MP3 files from the computers to their mobile phones or to send bulk downloads of pictures quickly from a digital camera to a computer. Foley says the Bluetooth SIG's eventual goal is to have Bluetooth reach speeds of up to 100Mbit/s that will allow high-definition video streaming directly from digital camcorders onto a television screen.

Integrated circuit supplier Broadcom, which has been developing chips that combine 801.11n wi-fi, Bluetooth and FM radio, has been performing live public demonstrations of this faster Bluetooth technology and has reached speeds of up to 24Mbit/s at the recent 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Broadcom senior product manager Ron Wang says his company has conducted its tests over the 802.11 channel currently used for wi-fi using Broadcom's wireless LAN chips. When sending files from PCs to mobile phones, Wang says Broadcom has consistently achieved data speeds in the 20M to 24Mbit/s range, while sending data from mobile phones to PCs has topped out at around 10Mbit/s.

Despite these improvements to Bluetooth's speed and energy efficiency, however, the technology will not be getting an upgrade in its wireless range, which currently tops out at around 100 metres. Foley says the Bluetooth SIG wants the technology to stay true to its roots as a short-range data transfer protocol.

"These new specifications will potentially have more range than the old ones, but that's not what we're targeting," he says. "We look at Bluetooth as being a personal area technology and we want to focus on developing applications that you run in your personal space", he says.

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Tags technologybluetoothMike Foleybluetooth siglow-power devices

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