Bluetooth gets turned up to 11

Stacey Higginbotham
Jul 1, 2016 · 3 min read
This is Bluetooth’s future

Location used to rely solely on GPS radios. Then Apple and Google added Wi-Fi to the mix, which boosted indoor coverage and improved location granularity. Now, thanks to two big innovations, Bluetooth is about to become the king of indoor location.

A startup building a virtual network of Bluetooth beacons and an update to the radio standard set to appear in devices starting in 2017 will make location for the internet of things cheap, easy and more interesting.

Let’s start with the Bluetooth radio itself. The Special Interest Group promoting the radio standard said that it will launch Bluetooth 5.0, which will be able to send more data (2 Mbps as opposed to about 1 Mbps), send it longer distances (up to 200 meters) and will allow more data to be broadcast. This last point is especially interesting because it means that a Bluetooth beacon can not just say where it is, but also include more data such as a URL. All of these improvements will require less power, which is good for battery life. (For more see Episode 64 of the podcast.)

But upgrading Bluetooth isn’t useful if all you can do with it is place beacons, which are physical pucks containing a Bluetooth radio, around a store or office. People use beacons for a variety of reasons. They can “tell” your phone about a discount in a specific area of a department store, relay information about a specific painting in a museum or convey presence information in a smart home or office. Large places require a lot of them to get truly granular information about where a person is standing. With the ability for some of them to be moved around, and their batteries needing changing, beacons aren’t as popular as everyone thought they could be.

Mist Systems, a startup founded by some credible Wi-Fi and networking engineers, offers a solution to the too-many-beacons problem. The company has built a piece of hardware that contains a special antenna that can segment the radio signals sent into a room, as well as software to manage the interplay between the physical radio and analytics in the cloud. The system works with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The result of Mist’s system is that companies can monitor their Wi-Fi at a crazy detailed level and create virtual Bluetooth beacons using the Mist hardware and software. An IT manager or network person replaces their Wi-Fi access points with the Mist box and then goes into the software and sets up beacons wherever his or her heart desires. They can associate data with these virtual Bluetooth sensors. For example, a casino could associate a special offer with every blackjack table in the room, all without buying a physical device for each one.

The company’s software is designed for business users, but I’d love to embed this into my home for presence awareness. Imagine popping the antenna technology into routers and being able to subscribe to a virtual beacon service that let’s you set up sensors using a simple interface. Your lights could come on to your set preference if your phone or a wearable associated with you entered a room. Guests coming into your home could get a text with the Wi-Fi password and a welcome message.

Mist’s offering feels like the beginning of making Bluetooth an essential tool for delivering granular location, becoming part of the last meter infrastructure for the internet of things. Combined with the Bluetooth 5.0 standard expected in devices next year, it could also become a way to send people information about the physical world around them. That offers all kinds of opportunities to personalize people’s experience if they opt in.

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Stacey Higginbotham

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I blog about chips, broadband and the internet of all the things.