Bluetooth Pushes into the Smart Home
Faster speeds and less reliance on pairing make the protocol increasingly attractive.
As appliance makers compete in a growing smart home market, a common question remains: which wireless protocol will win out?
The field is still shifting between devotees to ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and others. But with every iteration of Bluetooth, the technology improves its speed and range; and taken in conjunction with its low power needs, the proliferation of beacons and its increasing ability to communicate without pairing, some experts believe it could become the solution of choice.
“Everybody has a smart phone, and everybody likes to use their smart phone to interface with their house and everything else,” says Bruce DeVisser, Fujitsu Components America’s product marketing manager for wireless modules and touch panels. “So it just seems to be a natural progression to make that part of any smart appliance.”
appliance DESIGN spoke with DeVisser about how he predicts the wireless protocol market will resolve, and where Bluetooth’s strengths and weaknesses show.
This interview was edited for length.
appliance DESIGN: What has made Bluetooth more attractive to designers in recent years?
BRUCE DEVISSER: Several years ago the problem was that the technology wasn’t as good as it is today. It’s advanced quite a bit, as well as the firmware. There have been a lot of improvements and there’s a lot more flexibility to it. And Bluetooth pairing has always been an issue, whereas with Wi-Fi you don’t have that issue, but you do need to have the application running to detect and communicate.
There are only two technologies that are available with smart phones, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. So with the advances in Bluetooth technology and the proliferation of different Bluetooth chips and solutions, it’s just become very easy for designers to implement them. And there is a lot of software out there available and software development kits.
appliance DESIGN: Are there some applications where Wi-Fi is still the better choice?
DEVISSER: Yeah, when you want to move a lot of data, Bluetooth is not a good solution. So, we run into this in the industrial IoT area because if you have a lot of sensors, sending a lot of data, Bluetooth is not a good conduit for that. Which is why a lot of people with edge devices are now turning them into what they call gateways, which used to mean a Bluetooth to Wi-Fi bridge, but now it means I have firmware or software using a gateway that’s pre-filtering data so that the Bluetooth stream is not overburdened.
So if you’re just sending a lot of data, especially raw data, then Wi-Fi is still a better choice.
I view the smart home as being data-light. It uses smaller data packets, so there just isn’t a lot of sensor data.
appliance DESIGN: How do you think the protocol landscape will shake out in the near future?
DEVISSER: Right now, everything is a mishmash of protocols and methodologies. If you want to implement a smart home, other than trying to buy everything through one vendor, you’re still mixing and matching. From what I’ve seen, it’s getting easier to mix and match things. So if you buy a refrigerator from LG and you buy a dishwasher from Bosch, chances are you’re going to be able to integrate both of those through your Siri or similar-type device in your home. You’ll be able to be in communication with all those things through your Wi-Fi link, and therefore by a remote link of Wi-Fi through the cloud. And you’ll still have individual Bluetooth connections for local alerts and so on.
appliance DESIGN: Where do you see the greatest potential for growth in Bluetooth applications?
DEVISSER: Well, every place I look. When somebody wants to move data from a fixed or mobile device to a smart phone, Bluetooth is becoming the solution of choice. Just because it’s easy to do.
appliance DESIGN: What’s driving the smart Bluetooth-enabled applications? Are they developed in the medical or industrial fields, and then finding their way to consumer electronics and appliances, or vice versa, or something else?
DEVISSER: I’m seeing things go both ways. The medical field gets ideas from a lot of the consumer stuff, but it works both ways. One company I know developed a product and released it for the consumer market and was immediately bombarded by the industrial guys who said, “why didn’t you make an industrial version? That’s where we really need it.” So it works both ways. Every developer that’s looking around and seeing applications just grabs them and converts them to their own use, because it’s the base technology that’s making that useful. I don’t see a general trend.
appliance DESIGN: What other trends are you noticing?
DEVISSER: From a market perspective, I like to take a 10,000-foot view of what’s going on, and it’s interesting that we keep trying to solve the same problems. How do we make all of this technology really benefit the consumer, make it easy enough for them to use so they don’t have to think about? I’ve always seen that as the biggest challenge, and I think that’s still a challenge today. If you’re going to ask someone to do Bluetooth pairing to check their refrigerator status, or their oven status, that’s problematic. If you can avoid the pairing, that’s great, that’s a good benefit.
Certainly we’re going to be running up against reality soon with the number of devices sharing the same frequencies. And as you add devices in the home, you’re going to start to have problems with things working reliably. So keeping the amount of data down—today you don’t have to worry about it so much. But in the future, people are going to have to pre-filter their data to avoid conflicts and have reliable operations.
appliance DESIGN: When will that become a necessity?
DEVISSER: Next year, it could be that soon. But, in reality, it will probably be in the two to three year range before anything really starts to show up in the home market.
appliance DESIGN: Could there be consumers out there conceivably running into that issue already?
DEVISSER: If it was all Wi-Fi, maybe. Because of the structure of the home and degradation of the signal, people are using a lot of repeaters to extend their signal. And that’s crowding the bandwidth even more. So having issues with reliable connections with Wi-Fi is, I think, already a problem in some environments.
Bluetooth is starting to catch up in that environment. So I don’t think it’s an issue today, but it might be in another year. But people are developing products to mitigate that, like Cassia Networks, they have a Bluetooth router. And that helps to alleviate that because it acts as a bridge to your Wi-Fi as well.
appliance DESIGN: In the future do you see people primarily using a combination of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the smart home?
DEVISSER: I do. And I think the Wi-Fi part of it is going to be—I could say it’s for the longer range—but I think it’s more for when you’re out of the house. Because Bluetooth, like Bluetooth 5, its range gets extended enough that it’s competing with Wi-Fi. But, of course, now Wi-Fi has the HaLow spec for lower power… so they can try to compete with Bluetooth. So I wouldn’t say [Wi-Fi’s high power needs] are erased, but both of those competing technologies are aware of what they need to do to get more market share. But I think Bluetooth is going to win out in the home environment.