What's next for Bluetooth?
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Chuck Sabin, senior director, market development at the Bluetooth SIG

Chuck Sabin, senior director, market development at the Bluetooth SIG, discusses its priorities and what’s around the corner for the technology with Sam Fenwick

Chuck Sabin has spent a healthy chunk of his professional career working for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), having joined it back in December 2010 as director, product management and planning and then being promoted on two occasions. He now serves as its senior director for market development. When I sought a briefing on recent advances in the technology and upcoming changes, his eight – soon to be nine – years championing Bluetooth and helping to drive its development make him the perfect person to interview.

As we speak via the capricious modern-day miracle that is the transatlantic conference call, he begins by saying that the Bluetooth SIG and its members are pushing hard on two areas at the moment: Bluetooth Mesh and location services. Starting with the first, Bluetooth Mesh – according to the SIG’s website – “enables many-to-many device communications and is optimised for creating large-scale device networks”.

Sabin adds that the primary use-cases in this regard are around commercial lighting networks, controllers and devices, and the SIG will make a number of announcements related to this area as the events season gets into full swing after the summer lull. He says the number of Mesh-qualified products on Bluetooth.com has been doubling every six months with somewhere in the “upper 200s” making the grade in the past six months, and he considers this a good proxy for the level of interest in this aspect of the standard.

Sabin says much of the appeal around this approach stems from the greater flexibility that wireless systems have compared with their wired counterparts, the absence of cabling and the ability to run additional services over the same infrastructure, so the system that controls the lighting in a building can also be used to support environmental sensors, occupancy sensing, asset tracking, wayfinding, etc.

Location, location, location
Turning to location services, which encompass “things like asset management and tracking, access control capabilities like passive and keyless entry”, Sabin says the SIG is “seeing a lot of momentum in the market around heightening the experiences in airports, sports venues and malls [as well as extending people’s] outdoor ‘blue dot experience’ [with GPS] into indoor [locations]”.

Back in January, the SIG announced a new direction-finding capability for the technology, which as its name suggests will allow Bluetooth devices to determine the direction of a Bluetooth signal, which could make it easier to find Bluetooth-tagged objects such as keys, wallets or other personal items, as well as better indoor positioning systems and the potential for museum visitors to point their phones at specific exhibits to see more information about them.

Sabin says “all of the major silicon manufacturers have implemented the direction-finding capabilities – that they’ve been demonstrating [to] product manufacturers – in their chipsets”, and he has seen these new capabilities being tested for automotive applications – “for pinpointing someone as they approach an automobile”.

He adds there are a lot of interesting asset-tracking applications that use Bluetooth – “I was in China several weeks ago speaking to a number of companies that were building location services solutions.” One of these is focusing on the use of such services with chemical plants where there is a need to closely monitor workers’ locations. Using a combination of Bluetooth beacons, tags in employees’ ID badges and geofencing, it allows alerts to be triggered when a lot of people are gathered where they shouldn’t be and provides information that can be vital to both the plant’s managers and the emergency services in the event of an incident – for example, providing them with the exact location of someone who needs to be rescued.

Sabin adds that another interesting application for Bluetooth-based location services is within prisons, as they allow staff to get a better understanding of inmates’ locations, where they are congregating and who is speaking to whom. This in turn can be used to get a better sense for which inmates are affiliated with which gangs. While Sabin says “you can look at it as maybe a little bit Big Brother”, he adds that’s primarily about trying to improve prisons’ safety and security.

He adds that much of the accuracy and resolution of Bluetooth location services is down to how well the solution is implemented by the installer, but “as companies have become more sophisticated [in this regard, they’ve been able to achieve] higher accuracy with less beacons”. The “proximity-based solutions” that are in the market today generally provide metre-level accuracy, and this will improve to centimetre-level accuracy once the new direction-finding capabilities are introduced. Sabin says the SIG will continue working to improve the accuracy of Bluetooth’s location services – with the direction of travel being toward the ability to tell that a tagged device is in a particular room and in what direction someone should look for it, but also giving them a sense of how far away they are from it.

Stretching the signal
Sabin is keen to highlight Bluetooth’s performance in noisy RF environments, thanks to its use of adaptive frequency hopping, along with the longer range capabilities that were introduced in Bluetooth 5.0 – it adds a new variant of the Bluetooth physical layer (with two possible coding schemes) that uses error correction to enhance receiver sensitivity at the cost of a reduction in the data transfer rate. The long-range variant can, with the right coding scheme, effectively quadruple Bluetooth’s range. It is worth noting that Bluetooth 5.0 has another physical layer variant that supports 2Mbps data transfer speeds, so developers can select the variant that works best for them in terms of the trade-off.

Sabin adds that Bluetooth’s long-range capabilities (given the ability to boost receiver sensitivity) also come into play when trying to send signals through multiple walls or when trying to establish a reliable connection in an environment with a lot of metal, such as “the basement of a nuclear power plant [where] there’s boilers and girders and other things”.

It is at this point that we turn to Bluetooth’s role in the Internet of Things (IoT). Sabin – perhaps unsurprisingly – sees it as “one of the core technologies for making the IoT a reality”. However, it is hard to dispute this claim, given that like Wi-Fi, it is present in the vast majority of smart devices, and Sabin says while “audio has been one of the cornerstone solution areas for Bluetooth for quite some time, we’re seeing evidence that [Bluetooth’s] data transfer capabilities [that can be] used for the IoT are set to become the number one solution area for Bluetooth going into 2023”. He adds that by then, “somewhere around 1.35 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices will ship each year”. He argues the ubiquitous nature of the technology, the resulting ability to “deploy and connect” and the availability of chips, development resources and modules “make it almost a no-brainer” for IoT developers.

So, what’s next for the Bluetooth SIG? “[In terms of our] roadmap you’re going to see significant emphasis in two areas over the coming year or so. One is around making some additions to [Bluetooth’s] audio capabilities. It’s been no secret that the hearing-aid industry came to us to design the next generation of audio for [them]; that’s kicked off a set of activities that you’re going to start seeing come to fruition in early 2020 – you’re going to start seeing new capabilities being available such as a new codec, broadcast audio for the sharing of music or audio in various environments and support for multi-streams of audio.” Sabin explains that currently Bluetooth earbuds work by sending a single stream of audio data from the source device to one earbud, which then communicates with its partner. In future, both earbuds will receive separate streams, thereby moving much of the processing back to the device. In addition, mesh networking capabilities will continue to expand in the form of “firmware updates, higher speeds and provisioning capabilities”.

Returning to Bluetooth’s location capabilities, it is almost impossible to go about your daily business without being viscerally reminded by the difference that a few inches to the left or right can make – be it on the roads or on a subway platform. And it is impossible to forget that sinking feeling when your carefully planned route and estimated time of arrival goes completely to wrack and ruin when you arrive at your destination’s rough location only to find that you have to navigate an unfamiliar rabbit-warren of corridors with scant minutes to spare. Hopefully, thanks to the efforts of Sabin and his colleagues, this last problem will be as relevant to future generations as trying to remember phone numbers or worrying about scratched CDs.

CV – Chuck Sabin
Chuck Sabin is responsible for business strategy and planning at the Bluetooth SIG. He is responsible for working with the Bluetooth executive team, board of directors and member companies to expose insight, trends and projections to help drive the development of strategic priorities for SIG. Sabin has an extensive background in marketing, product management, planning and business development for enterprise servers, mobile operating systems, mobile devices, client software and services.

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