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Bluetooth’s Incipient 3rd Wave of Innovation Deserves Greater Recognition

- San Diego, CA | One of our most robust and informative op-ed articles just dropped on EE Times website this morning. The response to which has been affirming. Bluetooth technology is advancing and the message of opportunity couldn't be too amplified. Click the link above or read below.

Bluetooth® radio technology is one of the most successful wireless solutions ever introduced, yet today if you mention Bluetooth to colleagues, trade press or analysts, most sum it up as a mature technology that despite its continued market expansion, is not exciting. Rather, it is the technology that serves smartphones with wireless audio to earbuds and in the last decade expanded to support IoT applications including wearables and sensor connectivity. In summary, people make reference to the first 2 waves of Bluetooth innovation spanning the last 25 years.


A new third wave of innovation just started and brings profound new capabilities to Bluetooth technology that is beginning to transform the way people:

1) Access, share and use wireless audio

2) Enhance brick-and-mortar retail experiences

3) Improve secure access/digital key enablement supporting the digital wallet

In turn, these new technologies and supported use cases are beginning to enable new transformational products in consumer, commercial and hearing access markets. According to ABI Research, the already massive Bluetooth market is expected to expand from today’s staggering 4.9B annual device shipments in 2022 to more than 7.6B annual device shipments in 2027. This is the reality today for Bluetooth and it is the equivalent of the cellular industry’s 5G transition and the WiFi Alliance’s debut of WiFi 7. In fact, every dozen years Bluetooth enters a new foundational technology wave which has vastly grown the market and more importantly, expanded the use cases and applicability of the industry’s leading cable replacement technology.

Bluetooth’s 1st Wave of Innovation: 1998-2009

Before discussing the incipient 3rd wave of innovation, I will briefly review the initial rollout of Bluetooth and the introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Bluetooth was first introduced by a handful of companies in the 1990s culminating in the establishment of the Bluetooth SIG in 1998 with founding members including Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba with the Board subsequently adding Microsoft, Apple and Lenovo. Today, membership in the Bluetooth SIG stands at more than 38,000 companies globally. What initially encouraged the collaboration by these companies was the need to standardize interoperability of short-range Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN) communications around the burgeoning mobile phone to the notebook computer, wireless headset, and for mobile handset integration with car stereos. Ericsson introduced the first several mobile phones including the R520M, the non-commercial T36, and the T39 to support cable replacement between mobile phones supporting handsfree operation and to connect with PCs. The first Bluetooth headset (also from Ericsson) and PC notebook (IBM ThinkPad A30p which showcased wireless connections to printers and scanners) also commercially debuted between 2000-2001. The early days of Bluetooth consumer devices largely addressed the needs for handsfree operation of mobile phones with Bluetooth largely associated with headsets which have evolved cleverly into earbuds, as well as the wireless audio feature of Bluetooth in cars.


The 2nd wave of Bluetooth innovation started when Nokia’s Wibree technology initiative was accepted into the Bluetooth SIG and the technology became part of the Bluetooth 4.0 specifications adopted in 2010 as Bluetooth Low Energy, commonly referred to as BLE. BLE introduced a new protocol stack aimed at very low power applications using coin cell batteries for months to years of operation with cost reduced single-mode BLE only chips featuring a lightweight link layer for ultra-low power idle modes, reliable point-to-multipoint data transfers, and simple device discovery.


In addition to the semiconductor companies that had been supplying Bluetooth chips, other chip companies also entered the market with single-mode BLE only chips targeting a variety of non-audio applications largely centered around IoT and specifically targeting the smart home, sports & fitness, and health (e.g. heart rate and blood pressure monitors, thermometers, weight scales) markets. BLE became very interesting not only because it offered a small, low cost and low power wireless capability, but it also enjoyed a high concentration of adoption in mobile devices and was able to expand the market into a class of devices that was not served by higher power classic Bluetooth solutions.


Bluetooth Low Energy technology targeted active radio current of 15mA running off a 3V coin cell battery – which is far less power than Bluetooth Classic radios. This was ultimately achieved and surpassed, with leading BLE radios today achieving under 5mA of active radio current. For applications that used Bluetooth, BLE meant a new option for devices that did not quite need what Bluetooth classic offered, and for new applications such as automotive Tire Pressure Monitoring (TPMS), the new capabilities vastly helped expand the applicability of Bluetooth technology.

Packetcraft’s company history as a pioneer in Bluetooth software began in the early phase of the 2nd wave of Bluetooth innovation with the debut of Wicentric in 2009. Wicentric’s leadership in supplying optimized Bluetooth Low Energy software culminated in Arm’s acquisition of the company in 2015, and in preparation for the 3rd wave of Bluetooth innovation, Packetcraft was launched in partnership with Arm in 2019.


Bluetooth’s 3rd Wave of Innovation: 2023

With a proper understanding of the first two waves of Bluetooth innovation, it is time to define what comprises the third wave which is entirely centered around Bluetooth Low Energy and begins to phase out Bluetooth Classic.

After several years in the making, Bluetooth LE Audio started debuting commercially in the Google Pixel 7 in late 2022 and continues to gain traction in smartphones and wireless headsets delivering an evolution to Bluetooth Classic Audio by providing better audio quality, lower power operation, and most importantly offering new use cases because of its new broadcast, multi-channel and upgraded audio codec capabilities.


Also, part of this wave is a technology known as Periodic Advertising with Response (PAwR) which is the new transport designed to allow up to tens of thousands of devices to communicate. The leading use case for PAwR is Electronic Shelf Label (ESL), though is also suited for applications such as interconnected home/building alert systems, automotive battery monitoring systems and agricultural moisture sensors.


The final key enabler of this innovation wave was initially referred to as High Accuracy Distance Measurement (HADM) and is now referred to as Channel Sounding, a time-of-flight measurement of physical distance. This feature is needed to thwart wireless relay attacks since identity is not enough for secure access, but identity with presence. This enables secure access application for home and building entry, using your phone as your digital key, as well as a host of proximity-based applications. Each of these pillars will now be discussed at greater length to explain their revolutionary capabilities and the market expansion they represent.


Evolution of BT Audio: LE Audio & Auracast broadcast for hearing aids, ear buds, and headphones.


Bluetooth audio, now referred to as Classic Audio started out several decades ago as a straightforward and clever way to deliver handsfree operation of mobile phones. However, this solution did not deliver stereo streams as only single-channel communications were supported and proprietary means were implemented when Bluetooth evolved to support left/right earbuds. The technology was also primarily intended to support voice, not music or multimedia which came later and the original audio codec (SBC) was augmented by manufacturers with the adoption of proprietary codecs which relied on standards-based SBC purely to deliver fallback interoperability. Bluetooth is designed pervasively into mobile devices, vehicles, speakers, and many other devices so it is the undisputed leader in wireless audio. However, it was augmented so significantly by proprietary means that key commercial capabilities were not interoperable. At the same time, Bluetooth LE as a radio has seen dramatic acceptance and improvements that combined with a desire to address new use cases, restore interoperability, extend battery life, and improve performance gave a natural strategic interest to define Bluetooth Classic Audio’s revolutionary evolution.


Bluetooth LE Audio is the planned progression which delivers multi-stream, lower power operation, and higher quality wireless audio using the new LC3 audio codec. Additionally, LE Audio has the hooks to bring compatibility of advanced features, such as spatial audio and additional codecs which is enabling vendors to innovate and improve on technology that was once only available to certain handsets.



Moreover, LE Audio supports new use cases by enabling interoperable sharing of sound in venues (e.g. airports, stadiums, conference centers, theaters, gyms, restaurants) and on personal devices (e.g. TVs, tablets) using new broadcast capability. The Bluetooth SIG introduced Auracast™ broadcast audio, based on LE Audio, intended to deliver life-altering audio experiences. Auracast allows you to share your personal audio experiences, fully enjoy televisions in public spaces by unmuting what was once silent and creating a more complete watching experience, and most critically allowing you to tune into the audio you want to hear in the places you go. Auracast aims to become the next generation assistive listening technology, improving audio accessibility and promoting better living through better hearing and communication.


On the heels of the American Academy of Audiology’s annual HearTech conference, doctors throughout the nation lauded Bluetooth LE Audio’s new technical characteristics as well designed to supporting hearing aids and listening devices and were especially excited about the potential Auracast stands to offer in terms of accessibility for their patients.

Auracast is exciting not just for the hearing-impaired community but for the community at large, as it allows those wearing hearing aids, earbuds and headphones indiscriminately to subscribe to broadcast audio to enhance your everyday living and enjoyment, though it goes even further, as sensors and devices can also share audio messages to the likes of facility operators and household occupants.


Thus far, Bluetooth LE Audio is announced in the: Google Pixel 7 smartphone, OnePlus Buds2Pro earbuds, EarFun AirPro3 earbuds, and in a growing list of Samsung devices including the Galaxy Buds2Pro earbuds, Samsung QLED TV (QN65Q800), Galaxy Z Fold 4 smartphone, Galaxy Z Flip 4 smartphone, and the Galaxy S23 family of flagship smartphones. Additionally, JBL announced upcoming OTA updates enabling existing earbuds to be LE Audio capable particularly the TourPro2 and TourOneM2.


PAwR Group Communication: ESL and other emerging applications including EV battery management

Bluetooth 5.0 introduced a new transport, Periodic Advertising, which allows a device to broadcast data deterministically according to a precise schedule. In Bluetooth 5.4, this capability is enhanced by allowing responses back to the broadcaster. Periodic Advertising with Response (PAwR) allows bidirectional communication in a star network topology, supporting wireless group communications theoretically into the tens of thousands of end nodes. The information being sent from the hubs to the end nodes are infrequent, so a highly synchronized network is formed whereby the end nodes are power efficient. The primary target application is Electronic Shelf Labels (ESL), digital tags that not only reflect retail product pricing and product inventory, but also help control perishable product quality, improve restocking, facilitate consumer purchasing, and fulfillment retrieval of product from retail market shelves delivering operational efficiencies and an improved consumer experience. By enabling response slots, communication reliability with acknowledgements is used by the higher layers. An exciting development was recently announced by Walmart to deploy Bluetooth PAwR in 500 locations over the next 12 to 18 months for a total of 60 million digital shelf labels, with the opportunity to expand into more Walmart stores.

Other use cases of the PAwR transport will enable other group communications applications. Security and safety sensors can interoperate with other 3rd party Bluetooth devices in the home and commercial buildings. Electric vehicle Battery Management Systems (BMS) where once inaccessible sealed battery modules (each containing hundreds of battery cells) can be wireless monitored and controlled to ensure the battery pack’s safe operation and performance. With the combination of Bluetooth Coded PHY, agriculture moisture sensors can efficiently communicate potentially 1-km away from a gateway.


Channel Sounding: High accuracy distance ranging for secure access, digital key and proximity services

Bluetooth introduced some initial direction-finding capability in the Bluetooth 5.1 specifications that went beyond traditional RSSI measurements to include Angle of Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD) to aid in the location and tracking of items. However, the industry and set of applications crave higher accuracy and reduced complexity to support greater digitalization of our lives to include secure access, digital key, and to seamlessly provide proximity services and support Real Time Location Services (RTLS). According to Bluetooth SIG member IMEC, Bluetooth Channel Sounding technology can achieve 10-cm accuracy which is a major development for the technology and more importantly for use cases looking to leverage both Bluetooth communications and ranging/location. Members of industry in conjunction with the Bluetooth SIG developed a post busting myths about Bluetooth location capability and a good read to come up to speed on where the technology is going. The specifications for Channel Sounding are on the docket for release as part of this wave of innovation and a draft specification has already been publicly released.



The Evolution of Bluetooth is Here; Are You Ready?

As you can see, Bluetooth’s 3rd wave of innovation is very real, meaningful and continues its growth to an astounding projected 7.6B units annually in just 4 years’ time. Some of the improvements go towards increasing operational efficiencies as part of IoT’s continued adoption, some are in support of the ongoing digital transformation of our lives, and others even more profound as we prepare to improve actual communications between people indiscriminately no matter if one is hard of hearing or just enjoying their earbuds. Packetcraft’s roots were founded during the 2nd wave of Bluetooth’s innovation and we are proud to continue our legacy of delivering leading-edge software solutions in partnership with numerous chip companies as this third wave matures. We invite you to share in our excitement for the revolutionary new capabilities and evolution of the technology.


 

John Yi serves as Founder and Chief Executive Officer for Packetcraft, Inc. where he leads a world-class software company delivering Bluetooth and UWB solutions enabling the evolution of wireless audio, supporting advanced IoT applications, and supporting the introduction of digital key/secure access. He has been commercializing communications software at various system levels for more than 25 years spanning companies in early-stage start-up to Fortune-500 across many markets and saw the successful exit of 3 startups through acquisition or merger. Prior to the founding of Packetcraft, John served as Director of Software at Arm where he managed a team of engineers delivering Bluetooth software to global licensees and into the Mbed OS project. John is particularly excited about his company’s contributions to the latest innovations introduced by Bluetooth LE Audio especially as new use cases are supported through clever standards-based broadcast functionality that will support increased accessibility and transformation in how we communicate and consume audio.

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