Brian Mitchell, owner and founder of Ecoustics, interviewed Packetcraft's CEO, John Yi and discussed Bluetooth LE Audio specifications and the future of wireless protocol.
"A lot of us know Bluetooth as the Bluetooth that's in our phones or in our cars or maybe that runs on our smart watches. But for the past five years or so, the Bluetooth has been developing or renovating the old generation Bluetooth on top of the Low Energy radio. So, it's bringing together what we're seeing, sort of that third wave of innovation....." ~ John Yi, Packetcraft CEO
Click here to listen to the full podcast or watch it below.
🔸 There is some murkiness surrounding Bluetooth and how it is advancing. 5.2 and its new audio network topology called Auracast which enables Bluetooth devices to receive broadcasts from a single source within range.
🔸 Example use cases include tuning into specific news programs, language translations at a theater, and selective listening at the airport. Devices supporting Auracast provide localized audio experiences in way that draws, includes and enhances listening. Parties, concerts, tours, pubs, restaurants, terminals – enabling Bluetooth communications in public environments means listening opportunities that bridge gaps and sync communications in a revolutionary way.
🔸 The new Bluetooth tech standardizes on a new codec called LC3, which offers higher performance, efficiency and provides a product signal broadcast range of up to 100 meters. Packetcraft specializes in providing stacks and solutions for both sending and receiving devices that are prioritizing these new Bluetooth technologies and the team anticipates the release of innovative, new LE audio products in the second half of this year.
Host: Brian Mitchell | Founder / Owner of Ecoustics
Co Host: William Jennings | Sr. Headphone / Portable Editor
Guest: John Yi | CEO of Packetcraft
Mitchell: Welcome to the Ecoustics podcast. I'm your host, Brian Mitchell, and today our topic is about the new Bluetooth. Yes, you heard that right. Bluetooth is improving and we're going to dig into the details. I'm delighted to welcome John Yi, Founder and CEO of Packetcraft, a software company that develops Bluetooth and wireless solutions for device makers. John has over 25 years of experience in engineering with wireless communications, and previously was the director of software at Arm. Welcome to the podcast, John.
Yi: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Mitchell: Glad you're here. And I also want to welcome our co-host today, William Jennings, eCoustics' Senior Headphone Editor. Hey, William.
Jennings: Hiya, Brian. Glad to be here. Good to meet you too, John.
Mitchell: Before we get into the exciting new features that Bluetooth can offer, John, can you help us understand what led you to create Packetcraft?
Yi: Sure, Brian. Packetcraft has been around for about 10 years. We were a startup that was acquired by Arm, and then was sponsored by Arm to sort of be our own independent company about four years ago. We're doing what we have been doing for the last 10 years. We have been developing wireless protocols for decades and decades, some of us even with the original Bluetooth, and we aim to deliver the latest Bluetooth technologies to semiconductors and product companies.
Jennings: Just so our customers ... or, listeners are aware, you may not see Packetcraft on a lot of consumer products, but what you're likely to see is their customers, Nordic Semiconductor, EM Microelectronics with their latest EM Blue system-on-a-chip, all of these embed Packetcraft as their native codec software. So, you're likely to run into Packetcraft products in a lot of our things we deal with day-to-day in the audio world and not necessarily likely to know it.
Mitchell: What's new that's coming to Bluetooth?
Yi: Yeah, great question. I think a lot of us know Bluetooth as the Bluetooth that's in our phones or in our cars or maybe that runs on our smart watches. But for the past five years or so, the Bluetooth has been developing or renovating the old generation Bluetooth on top of the Low Energy radio. So, it's bringing together what we're seeing, sort of that third wave of innovation. In this third wave, we're going to support a lot of the classic features, the point-to-point, my earbuds that connect to my phone or my earbuds that connect to my computer right now. But there's also this new technology called Auracast, and it's a broadcast technology that allows a single-source device to be received by infinite number of devices within range, but that's just the technology behind it. But with the Bluetooth compatibility that you get, it really is more of an experience that users will be able to go to a venue that's Auracast-capable, and be able to tune their earbuds with their phones to a particular program and a particular language. So imagine, let's just say you go to a bar, and a loud environment, and we just had March Madness. And I'm from San Diego, so the SDSU game is on, you want to listen to that particular television set. You can actually tune into that program. Or imagine the case where you are in a theater. Maybe it's a grandfather taking their grandchild to a theater, and in order to experience that theater, or that movie theater, the child's listening to the speaker program, but the grandfather, maybe it speaks a different language and can tune in to the language-specific program. And maybe just one other use case, I think there's plenty more, but one of the other use cases is maybe assistive listening or selective listening. So I think we've ... kind of all understand, maybe those who have teenagers understand that sort of selective listening. But imagine where, let's say you have the headphones that you like, and you're listening to your music at maybe some high fidelity, but you're at the airport and you don't want to miss your gate call, and they're making this gate announcement that says, "Now boarding flight 1234." Well, you could program your phone to have your headphones selectively listen to the information that you need. And that kind of Auracast capability of receiving selective programs is ... I mean, it could be in your house. We can listen to programs. Or we can listen to, instead of beeps and bops, like where your microwave, your food is ready, if your microwave or your dishwasher is done and ready to put away, all that can be done, instead of with beeps and bops, the natural human language that goes direct to the ear. So, those are some of the exciting things that are happening with this new Bluetooth, or this third wave of wireless innovation.
Mitchell: All right. As I listen to that and to those use cases, I feel like earphones are becoming almost like radio receptors. You can just tune your earphones into any radio station, only that they can be localized towards something that's in proximity of you. This is not a regular radio station, but that's how I'm interpreting it as. Is that accurate?
Yi: Yeah, that's very accurate, Brian. It's basic localized audio, but I mean, today we experience audio where we just have everything broadcasting or everything on at the same time. So you have to selectively sort of pinpoint the music that you want, or filter out the content that you want. So I think Auracast makes that just easier for us so we can actually choose the program and the language that we're interested in, so I think it makes for a more focused world.
Jennings: Yeah, I've already heard of one art museum, for example, Brian, that's looking at doing guided tours using the Auracast where they could do it in multiple languages, and not have loud noises in an art institute where that's frowned upon.
Yi: Yeah, that's a great ... another use case for Auracast. So, as you walk up to the artifact, you can receive the program, or the artifact information of that particular, in the language that you're interested in.
Mitchell: Right. Well, I think what'll be interesting for consumers is, will their existing AirPods and earphones work with this? Or this only in the next generation of products that they'll buy in the future?
Yi: Sure, and I think that's probably going to be more of a business case than it really is technology. We've actually been developing Bluetooth Auracast and this new LE audio technology. We started on these Nordic devices. This is an nRF2 device that's been around for five or six years, and that's when we started developing this technology. So, all that to say that the chips today, like the Bluetooth that's in your coffeemaker, could actually support Bluetooth or the Auracast with a software upgrade. But I think the upgrade path to a lot of that will probably be a business decision on the device makers, whether they want to upgrade or if they want to sell new devices with that technology.
Jennings: Yeah, I think we've seen an awful lot of that in the earphone market and that they tend to be commodities where the expectation is to throw out the old ones and buy a new pair, that there's just not enough margin there to continue to upgrade them for a longer period. So, I see what John is saying there. It's going to depend on the vendor, and we may see some of both is the answer, that some may choose to upgrade while others choose to replace and things. Just for clarity's sake, is it the Bluetooth 5.4 standard that incorporates Auracast? So that's the number our folks should look for if they're interested in doing something with that is something that supports 5.4?
Yi: Right. The 5.4, or what you hear, the Bluetooth 4.2, 5.0, and so forth, those standards, is the core Bluetooth specification in which ... and on top of that are the profiles. Auracast runs on Bluetooth 5.2 or greater. The 5.4 introduced some new technologies, not around audio, but around sort of industrial use cases.
Jennings: Okay, so glad I asked. So 5.2 is the number that people should be looking for in a headphone if they want to support Auracast?
Mitchell: And you also brought up Bluetooth LE, which stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. Is that part of that 5.2 specification, or how would you differentiate when consumers hear that or look for that?
Yi: Yeah, so there's the older Bluetooth called Classic, or BR/EDR, is specified along with the LE, the Low Energy radio, in the 5.2 or above specifications. But when we talk about LE audio, a lot of the new audio technologies is built on the Low Energy radio. So, when we talk about this new Bluetooth, it's really about the Low Energy radio.
Mitchell: So it's basically able to do all these new features, but at lower energy usage? Is that part of the draw so your battery can last longer and you can listen on your earphones longer?
Yi: Yeah. We can enjoy a lot of that with the newer radios, so it's low energy, lower complexity, higher efficiency, so yeah, improvement on battery life. The range, range will be the same as the Classic or the BR/EDR radio, but yeah, sure, we can enjoy a lot of those performances.
Mitchell: Is that about a hundred feet range, or 30 meters, something like that?
Yi: 10 meters, 30 feet, yeah.
Jennings: Yeah, a lot depends on what your obstacles are and what interference you have and how many other devices and things like that, so that's kind of a loaded question to put in front of John.
Mitchell: Right. No, I was just trying to get into the broadcast use space. Is it still going to be in the Auracast? It's going to be 30 feet?
Yi: Oh, yeah, that's a good point. In the broadcast use case, so that's one direction, so the broadcaster itself can add what's called a power amplifier in front of it and can transmit at the higher power setting. That range is typically at the hundred-meter range. So, if you're trying to cover, say, a stadium, you don't need to put a transmitter every 10 meters apart. You can put them a lot further apart.
Mitchell: Oh, wow, so you could really cover a whole football stadium?
Yi: So practically, probably not, just because of the obstacles that William mentioned, but in an open space, yes, you could.
Mitchell: And there's an unlimited number of receivers?
Jennings: Good range.
Mitchell: You're not limited in range by, if they're all in range, you can ... Gotcha, because it's just broadcasting out and they're each ...
Jennings: I see that as a potential replacement for a lot of proprietary protocols we see right now for these single Bluetooth speakers, that you can then pair with another one to create networks of them and things, as we see that proprietary. JBL does their thing and Sonos does their thing and somebody else does their thing, theoretically, this ought to give you a way to say, "You can have one of each of them and still tie them together where they're all playing the same source."
Yi: Yeah, there's some interesting use cases that this broadcast could bring about. So you mentioned maybe, I don't know, a speaker party, or where you bring your own speaker, and all these speakers can tune into the same broadcast. William, you're absolutely right. With Classic Bluetooth, there was no ability to broadcast, so a lot of the proprietary systems, whether it's earbuds sharing or speakers sharing, it's actually the speaker retransmitting the broadcast for another speaker to pick up. So, it can be done a lot more efficiently now with broadcast, and in a standard way. So it doesn't have to be all JBL speakers. They could be different brands, and that could come and pick up the same signal.
And another thing that LE audio has, it's built into the spec, is the presentation of the audio down out of the transducer. So what that means is, we can synchronize to a very accurate time multiple speakers. That's just built into the protocol. And also the display latency, so if you're watching a video, you could precisely tell each individual receiving device when to present that audio so that it's lip-synched perfectly across multiple listening devices. And again, it's being standard, you can have different manufacturers, and everyone would have that same audio experience.
Jennings: I have to ask, but since you said that, should we expect to see a sort of standardized spatial audio come out at some point as a result of this? Because it sounds like that's where you're headed.
Yi: In my opinion, yes. We are seeing the industry kind of move in that direction. Right now, spatial audio is like, I'm wearing the AirPods and I can listen to spatial audio through my iPhone, and it uses some head tracking information to relay that back to the phone so that the phone can readjust the audio based on your head position to the display. Well, a lot of that technology will be built in a standard way so that headphones can tell the phone the head tracking information, and the phone can render that. So if we do that in a standard way, that means any device manufacturer that has had tracking information can pass that to the phone, and you could use any third-party device with your potentially iPhone or another phone to experience the same spatial audio.
Mitchell: Sounds like Apple is doing this now, but it's not a standard across the industry, but the new Bluetooth and the products and the services that you're working on are making that a standard for other device-makers to use?
Yi: That's right. What we have seen in the past, say, five years or so, that has been proprietary, some of the things that William mentioned, even like music sharing or head tracking for spatial audio, can now be standardized so that we can have a compatibility device. You could bring your own favorite headphones and get that same experience in using standards.
Jennings: Yeah, I can see the augmented reality and the VR folks salivating over a standards-based tracking as well, so I think audio being one use case, and those guys are probably heavily invested in that too.
Jennings: To speak to that and sort of bringing the standards together, we've seen a lot of Bluetooth codecs over the past few years. I know Packetcraft talks about being a Bluetooth codec manufacturer. Where does the new Bluetooth go as far as the ... We've seen aptX and LDAC and Samsung and Huawei, and it seems like we're seeing just about every maker come out with their own proprietary protocol in order to try and come up with a better audio standard. What does the new Bluetooth bring to the table?
Yi: Sure, and let me first start off by saying that one of the motivations of using Bluetooth is standardization, and it's about compatibility. I want to make sure whatever headphones I bring will work with other third-party devices, so when you see the Bluetooth logo on your phone, and the Bluetooth logo on your headphones, you know it's going to work. And that's what Bluetooth has historically done really well in. And I think that-
Jennings: One of the breaking points of all of those proprietary protocols, and that's kind of what I was pointing out, is that now you have to look at, does it support aptX? Does it support LDAC? Is it AAC ... All of those things.
Yi: Exactly. And so what LC3 has done is it's ... What the Classic Bluetooth used for compatibility was SBC. The new LE Audio Bluetooth standardizes on a new codec called LC3, and that LC3 is higher performance in terms of audio quality, dynamic range. It gives us lower latency and higher efficiency, so we use less radio power. So it's a modern codec, but codec technologies will just continue to evolve. I mean, there's object-based codecs that we're hearing about and there's always going to be advancements made in codecs. And so Bluetooth LE also has a means of standardization of ,proprietary codecs, but it's proprietary, not standardized. And what I mean by that is, let's just say there is a new codec that comes out next year, and it doesn't have to be the same ... There is a standard way to communicate to another device what codec you're using. And if both understand that codec, you can use it. They can be different manufacturers, but if they both have the same codec configuration, they can use that codec as opposed to the standard LC3.
Jennings: I think what I'm hearing is that LC3 is in itself a standardized competitor to most of those, but it doesn't necessarily mean that all of those are going to go away. Since each one offers something slightly different, there may be use cases where those proprietaries are still viable.
Yi: I'd probably say yes. LC3 is a huge upgrade from what we had with SBC. Does it compete? I'd say it's comparable to a lot of the ... I mean, it sounds great. It sounds better than my Classic, but I'm also saying that there's room for improvements in the future. But I think from a compatibility perspective, we need to standardize on a codec, and that's what the LC3 brings. And it's not a bad codec. It sounds pretty good.
Jennings: Now, having had some chance to listen to them a couple of times now, I have to agree with you. I think it sounds at least as good as some of the other aptX HDs and the LDACs and the things like that. I think that the real prize is going to be the first person to come up with a true lossless way to do that, and LC3 stops a little short of that, but nobody else has figured that one out yet either.
Yi: Well, speaking of lossless, it's true, LC3 is not a lossless codec. We are losing some information. I think it still sounds good, even with it being not a lossless. But some of the things that Bluetooth is doing, Bluetooth is looking at increasing the bandwidth of the radio so that we could fit more, we can have higher bandwidth, and so it may be something that Bluetooth could possibly do in the future.
Mitchell: But that's something that the Bluetooth special interest group has to authorize, that extra bandwidth? Or can individual companies tap into it?
Yi: If it's done in a standard way, it would have to be done through the Bluetooth working group, or the SIG.
Jennings: My suspicion is that would actually mean a device upgrade as well, in that if you change the bandwidth, you're going to have to change your receivers and in addition to your transmitter to be able to utilize that. So, I think that's a more hardware-intensive change.
Yi: Yeah, that's right. It would be a hardware change.
Mitchell: All right. I'm trying to better understand what Packetcraft does. Do you work more on the device sending or the device receiving, or both?
Yi: Yeah, both. Packetcraft is a software IP provider. We're a software company that has the Bluetooth protocol stack running on various different radios. We could provide software that runs on the source side and on the synch side. But we're a B2B company. Probably not see our name in the consumer-end products, but we are an ingredient that product companies would use to build up products.
Mitchell: Right. From the consumer end, we often get bombarded with, there's a firmware update. Is that something that Packetcraft may have been involved in is adding new features, or are you well before that firmware update thing might happen?
Yi: Our software would probably be part of that firmware update, but it wouldn't be necessarily us initiating the firmware update. But I think firmware updates are not bad. Because just like whether it be compatibility, like as a new leading-edge technology, as new products come out there, there may be some compatibility issues that we fix typically over time, especially when a product is new. So you definitely want to take those updates when they come.
Jennings: Speaking as an engineer, there's one of the ... You can't test every possible use case, so you do the best you can, and there's always something you didn't think of when it actually goes to market. So, there will always be firmware updates.
Mitchell: Right. Yeah. I guess I'm trying to understand along the development process of, let's say, new earphones. When does a company approach you? Is it at the very beginning, the design phase, or how does the whole process start?
Yi: Right. So anytime, we're here, please contact us. But typically, it would be when you're defining your requirements, if wireless is needed in your product, then that's the right time to call us, right? Even actually if you're defining your requirements, call us. We can help you with just the requirements based on your needs for the product.
Jennings: Real quickly, Brian, one of the things you're going to run into is, I mentioned EM Microelectronics and Nordic and some of those, these are companies that offer system-on-a-chip, and what you're going to run into is the difference in a designer and a manufacturer. If you're designing the actual chip and the actual process that goes on, that's where Packetcraft is going to get involved in helping power that hardware and run the show, as it were. If you're a hobbyist like I am, and I'm going to pick up something off the shelf and put it together to make my own DIY, I'm probably going to go to somebody like EM Micro or to somebody like a Nordic and say, "Hey, I need to buy a couple of these pre-built system-on-a-chip." Because a lot of that takes that complexity out of the equation and I don't have to know it all or understand it all to make it work, so there's really two different layers there of what's going on.
Mitchell: Gotcha. Have we covered all of the new features yet for the new Bluetooth? I know we covered Auracast, but I think there's more?
Yi: Yeah, I think we covered it. I mean, Auracast is the new feature, but in order for the new LE audio, or the audio over the LE radio to get popular is we have to support all the existing use cases. So it does the point-to-point as well, just like the Classic Bluetooth does. But I also want to point out that this new sort of Auracast and LE audio is really about a new experience. We've kind of been talking about that already, right? This third wave of Bluetooth innovation is really going to ... I mean, we've talked about some use cases, but I think there's more that we haven't even imagined yet. What we're going to see is that the next generation of this third wave of Bluetooth, this next generation of earbuds that you have, or the headsets that we have, when it supports Auracast. And it's going to happen this year, when they support Auracast, there is now this new wave of devices that will want to get access to the ear that has some information specific to you that it wants to tell you. And this experience is going to be not in beeps and bops, that's not another something like beeping in your ear, but it's going to be more of a natural human language telling you that your food is ready, that your order is ready, that your flight is departing. It's not just trying to get your attention, it's just telling you some valuable information in the natural human language. Again, like I said, we talked about a sort of selective listening, the ability to get the information that you care about. To kind of illustrate that, maybe some of you have used the transparent mode in your earbuds, right? That's kind of like you're opening yourself to the entire surrounding. But do I care about that entire surrounding? I only care about the gate call. I don't care about ... Or my gate call, not the five other ones in within range. So the ability to tune into the very specific gate call, so I can immerse myself in the music that I enjoy, but to be only interrupted by the important information that I want. I think that's going to bring forth some new experiences in a very standard and compatible way that we all know Bluetooth is capable of doing.
Mitchell: I've also heard about a hearing aid technology, and I guess the transparent hearing is part of that, to amplify outside noises, or not noises, sounds, but to help people with hearing deficiencies? Is that part of this new Bluetooth too?
Yi: Very much so, and I think just to maybe illustrate the way assisted listeners actually hear the world is the very similar to that transparent mode of your earbuds. If you have five people around you talking, you can't selectively pick one person. You're listening to everything. I think there is some audio technology that could maybe beam-focus and sort of help, but you're really picking up a lot of noise along the way. But imagine, maybe you go to a public speaking event where it's broadcasted in Auracast. Well, I could tune my earbuds or headphones, or earbuds or hearing device, to that speaker. So I'm not picking up the conversations of maybe the people in the crowd speaking, but I can interact with that particular focused audio. I think it's going to make the world more accessible to the assistive listener.
Mitchell: And Packetcraft is building these solutions now. I think that's more of the headline of this stuff is coming, coming this year. You're working on it. Are there any products or things you could maybe point people to look for?
Yi: We have some things in the works that we cannot announce yet, but they will be released this year. We are working with hearing aid type companies and product companies that are building innovative new LE audio products. By maybe the second half of this year, a lot of us will be able to experience the things that we've been talking about today. To the product manufacturers, I think Bluetooth is going to have some really interesting things for you, and if you need help building your products, let us know.
Mitchell: All right. Thank you so much, John. We've been speaking with John Yi, CEO and Founder of Packetcraft, and I thank you, William Jennings, for joining us as well today on the podcast. And as always, please remember to like, subscribe, comment, and we'll see you guys next time.
ECOUSTICS, LLC was founded by Brian Mitchell in 1998 and remains independently owned and operated, headquartered in Orange County, CA (USA). The website (www.ecoustics.com) officially launched 1999 as one of the first consumer electronics portals. The company is dedicated to providing an easy to use, unbiased one-stop resource for anyone shopping, researching, or learning about technology.
The website originally aggregated hi-fi, audiophile and home theater reviews, and has since expanded to cover every consumer electronics category, which now include car audio, photography, portable electronics, computers, gadgets, wearables and any emerging technology.
For more information regarding Auracast + Bluetooth LE Audio go here.
To schedule a meeting regarding how Packetcraft might be a viable solution for your product, go here.