Cloud-savvy Bluetooth 4.1 to reach devices by year end

The Bluetooth 4.1 specification can connect wearable devices directly to the cloud without a hub

Bluetooth logo

Bluetooth logo

Bluetooth 4.1, due out by the end of the year, will directly connect devices to cloud services.

Bluetooth is commonly used for wireless connectivity of mobile devices and PCs over short distances. The current 4.0 protocol has a practical range of about 30 meters, but the new 4.1 protocol will indirectly connect devices outside of that range through the cloud, meaning that home users can expand their networks of connected devices, including wearables. The protocol is meant to break the dependence of wearables on smartphones for apps and data transfers.

For instance, sportbands and fitness trackers are being packaged with tailored fitness programs via Web services. With Bluetooth 4.1, fitness trackers or gym equipment will be able to upload data directly to cloud services without the need for a smartphone or tablet as a hub.

It is technically possible for Bluetooth devices to send data to a cloud service today, but only through hub devices with a full OS and supporting drivers or special routers running a software stack. Bluetooth 4.1 will go into "dumb" equipment such as routers or set-top boxes, which can receive Bluetooth data and redirect it to cloud services via a basic software layer in the gateway equipment. The gateways don't need a full OS the way smartphones and tablets do, with an app in the wearable device specifying the cloud service to receive the Bluetooth data.

"It's not only connecting sensors to phones, tablets or hubs, but in essence talking to infrastructure in bigger ways," said Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer of the standards-setting Bluetooth Special Interest Group. "The scenarios become interesting for remote monitoring and management."

Bluetooth devices located beyond the generic wireless range will also be able to communicate but may require cloud services. For instance, data captured from health monitors could be dispatched directly to a cloud service, which can send automatic alerts to doctors or relatives if the readings are a concern, Jawanda said. Devices could also be used to switch on lights, or unlock doors or cars from remote locations without the need for proximity detection.

Bluetooth 4.1 devices will also be able to serve as hubs. So, for instance, a cyclist could transfer speed and distance data from a bicycle directly to a smartwatch and other connected device.

The specification was finalized in December and has two parts. The low-power part was built on Bluetooth Smart for sensor and wearable devices, where a radio transmits small bursts of information wirelessly. Bluetooth 4.1 uses smarter timing and technique for low-power data bursts, which can improve the battery life of devices, Jawanda said. Bluetooth 4.1 works in conjunction with LTE to avoid interference on near-band transmissions. The other part of Bluetooth 4.1 covers continuous data transfers at faster rates, which are widely used for wireless audio streams and other applications.

There are just a few changes in hardware and virtually no changes in data rates or wireless range from Bluetooth 4.0. Changes in the new specification are mainly at the software layer.

"We want to make sure we minimize big hardware changes, that adds instability," Jawanda said.

Bluetooth SIG is considering wireless range and speed improvements for future specifications. For now, cloud services are playing an important role in how sensor devices operate and communicate, Jawanda said.

"From a consumer perspective, we want to make sure they connect," Jawanda said. "All the building blocks are there."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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