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As Bluetooth gets smart, a connected world grows bigger

Does this shelf know who's standing in front of it?  New Bluetooth technology allows that to happen...and more.
Does this shelf know who's standing in front of it? New Bluetooth technology allows that to happen...and more.
Photo by David Becker

There was a big gathering in San Jose, California earlier this month and connectivity was in the air. The two-day BluetoothWorld conference billed itself as “Where the Internet of Things Connects.” Perhaps a more suitable motto might have been “Where We Connect the Internet of Things to Everything Else.”

That’s because hour by hour, a parade of industry leaders in the Bluetooth space talked quite enthusiastically about a brave new world. They painted a picture where any hotel in the world will know who you are before you even walk up to the front desk. Or a home that knows your personal habits better than your mother. Where shopping in a store anonymously becomes a mere relic of the past.

All of this is possible now because of two advances in Bluetooth technology that have been widely adopted by all of the major mobile platforms. The first, Bluetooth Smart, is a low-energy, wireless network technology that is an efficient and cost-effective way to link sensors and wearable computers to the Web and cloud services.

The second advancement is the beacon, a low-cost piece of hardware mounted on a wall or counter that use Bluetooth Smart to transmit information. A lot of users don’t know this, but iBeacon is already built into Apple’s iOS7 equipped devices.

This means that if you carry your iPhone into a Bluetooth-equipped store today, you could receive special coupons or deals on the items you are shopping for instantly, even on an aisle-by-aisle basis. Now, a store shelf can detect your presence and offer a deal on the item you may be tempted to buy. It’s the next generation of GPS, where your movements and location can be easily tracked indoors, not just in retail stores, but transit hubs (such as airports) or sporting events as well.

This big step forward in Bluetooth has already set off a major competitive battle among beacon providers, especially where it involves the retail space. Mobiquity currently owns the nation’s largest Bluetooth Beacon network with 15,000 stores and over 100 major shopping malls in the U.S. alone. Apple’s iBeacon is in less than 300 stores, but that is predicted to grow rapidly this year.

PayPal and Qualcomm are expected to challenge Apple with their own beacons soon and smaller firms such as Estimote, Swirl and GPShopper have sprung up to provide beacon management and consulting services. In the battle to bring home the bacon, it’s a beacon war out there.

“Every single thing that you can interact with will have Bluetooth Smart in it,” said Robin Heydon, one of the presenters at BluetoothWorld. Heydon, a lead engineer with the British semiconductor company CSR, pointed out that Bluetooth’s technology will soon transform home automation because it’s already in our smartphones and these will be the lead devices for all that follows.

Heydon also offered a reason why big Internet service providers such as Comcast should be worried about their position as a single point of failure in the home. “Do we really want our ISP to be relied upon to turn the lights on and off?” Heydon asked.

Today’s $30,000 car has more sophisticated technology than homes costing ten or a hundred times that much. But Bluetooth’s latest technology now being deployed in homes, stores, and just about every conceivable indoor space is about to change that equation in a big way. Let the connectivity battle begin.

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