Figure 8 unveils ZigBee wireless tools

A San Diego start-up apparently is the first company with commercially available tools for connecting everything from smoke detectors to heart monitors over low-power wireless nets based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, also known as ZigBee.

Figure 8 Wireless Inc. unveiled in La Jolla, California, its Z-Stack and Z-Tools, the former an implementation of the ZigBee networking protocols, the latter a development tool kit for programmers. The company says several ZigBee radio chipmakers -- including Chipcon, Atmel and Motorola subsidiary Freescale Semiconductor -- are already using the products.

ZigBee runs in unlicensed radio bands, one of them 2.4 GHz, and has data throughput in that band of 240K bit/sec. It's specifically designed to work on very little power, so batteries can keep ZigBee transceivers running for months or even years.

A wide range of manufacturers are working with or evaluating ZigBee so that equipment such as medical devices, lighting fixtures, air conditioners and heating controls can send and receive data over a pervasive wireless mesh.

The wireless standard is being promoted by the ZigBee Alliance, a group of hardware and software vendors.

Figure 8 was founded two years ago, by veterans of the Bluetooth software development effort, says Joe Markee, CEO for Figure 8. It has raised US$4 million in two rounds of venture funding, mostly from funds in the San Diego area.

Markee admits that awareness of ZigBee and its implications is not pervasive among the general public. But there is, he says, "huge interest" among equipment manufacturers, who are keenly interested in networking their devices simply and cheaply.

The six-minute Figure 8 presentation at DEMOmobile included a smoke detector and a light fixture, both communicating via a third ZigBee-equipped component. The presentation faltered when a projection screen, intended to show ZigBee traffic packets among the devices, balked at displaying the traffic.

Markee admits there are other radio technologies being touted as alternatives to ZigBee, including Bluetooth, 802.11 WLANs, radio frequency identification and, somewhere in the future, ultra wideband. But ZigBee has two powerful selling points, Markee says: low price and low power.

"Today, even the ZigBee prototype chipsets are cheaper than any Wi-Fi (802.11) chipset," he says. And 802.11 radios, and even Bluetooth, still consume much more power than ZigBee, he says.

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