Soon, your Bluetooth-enabled wearables should be able to talk directly to one another, rather than having to route all their traffic through your smartphone or another hub device.
Bluetooth 4.0, otherwise known as Bluetooth SMART, enabled Bluetooth devices to communicate with one another while maintaining a low power draw. It’s what keeps your Fitbit in sync with your phone, and sends notifications to your Pebble, without killing the battery of whatever device is being used as the hub for all of your Bluetooth SMART devices.
Now, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the Kirkland-based organization behind Bluetooth, is gearing up to release a new version of the Bluetooth spec in early December, known as Bluetooth 4.1.
According to Suke Jawanda, the Chief Marketing Officer for Bluetooth, 4.1 isn’t going to be the revolution that Bluetooth 4.0 was. Speaking to GeekWire at the GigaOm Mobilize conference this week, Jawanda calls it an “evolutionary” release that’s building off the innovations that came from Bluetooth 4.0. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything interesting coming for consumers.
The first big change in Bluetooth 4.1 is the ability for Bluetooth SMART devices to better talk to one another. Right now, all of the data coming in from Bluetooth devices goes into your phone, and can then be sent out again. Under Bluetooth 4.1, developers will be able to make it so that when it makes sense for one device (say, a heart-rate sensing chest wrap) to talk to something like a smartwatch, that will be possible without having to use the phone as a go-between.
“So I’ve got a watch that’s acting as a hub for a chest wrap or any other sensors, and it’s sending all the data here where I can consume it on the screen, and it’s still acting as a display for the phone,” Jawanda said.
In addition, Bluetooth collaborated with LTE to work on creating a way for the two technologies to coexist well and prevent annoyances for users. In many cases, especially with smartphones, the Bluetooth radio is on the same chip as the phone’s cellular radio. On occasion, those two technologies don’t necessarily play well together. According to Jawanda, work the Bluetooth SIG has been doing behind the scenes will make the marriage of the two easier.
“We reached out to LTE, we’ve worked with them, we actually have a physical layer now where we make sure that we don’t bump into each other, and when we do, it’s prioritized rationally,” he said. “So, it just works for the consumer, there’s no dropped calls, no dropped linkages, so it’s just sort of plumbing-level issues that eventually ladder up to end-user usability.”
Finally, Bluetooth is starting to work on how it can get people away from having to rely on their phones or another mobile device to connect all of the devices in their life to the cloud. While something like a fitness tracker or smartwatch may be just fine if you leave your phone in the family room while you go down into the basement and then come back in half an hour, more robust uptime is important for other applications, like medical tracking.
“The patient may not have a phone, it may not be on, this is kind of a transient device, right? But they might have a router in their house that’s always on, their set-top box might always be on,” Jawanda said.
Now, Bluetooth is working to build the capabilities for devices like routers and set-top boxes to interface with Bluetooth SMART devices, so that you won’t need to worry about whether a key Bluetooth-enabled device will be unable to phone home to the cloud if your phone runs out of battery, or accidentally falls in a toilet. That said, don’t expect that your Fitbit will be able to upload data straight to the cloud starting in December. While 4.1 brings the infrastructure for that sort of functionality, software and profiles for those use cases won’t be in place until “later next year,” according to Jawanda.
According to Jawanda, it should be possible for some devices to take advantage of the new features that Bluetooth is rolling out with Bluetooth 4.1 with only a software update, depending on what hardware the actual Bluetooth modem uses. Bluetooth will be doing a full unveiling of the 4.1 specification in early December, which is when we’ll be able to dive into the nitty-gritty details about how all this works.
Blair Hanley Frank is GeekWire’s Bay Area Correspondent. He has also worked for Macworld, PCWorld and TechHive. He can be found on Twitter @belril.