Bluetooth is a term that has become commonplace in today’s consumer orientated world, and it’s one which most of us don’t think about. Bluetooth itself, as technology has been around for close to 20 years, but it’s only really become so incredibly popular due to the sheer number of gadgets that can actually use it. In essence, Bluetooth is nothing more than a technology to facilitate short-term communication between two or more electronic devices. Whereas Wi-Fi typically supports (relatively) large amounts of data transfer over tens of metres, Bluetooth tends to be a bit more diluted with respect to the data it can transmit and receive. Distances tend to be shorter as well, with the technology operating using a lot less power than most Wi-Fi transceivers. Bluetooth is ideal for use in low power applications where a sustained and low bandwidth connection is required.
The technology itself lends itself to similar applications that Wi-Fi does, but on a smaller scale. The most common applications being wireless keyboards and other input devices for home users as well as commercial applications such as bar code readers. Safety devices also often use Bluetooth technology, a popular application being man overboard systems on yachts and pleasure craft. These work by maintaining a constant connection between the user and the boat, and if that connection is broken, an alarm is raised. Bluetooth’s low operating range is of around 10 metres, so it’s a failsafe method of raising an alarm.
Other far more popular and well-known uses for Bluetooth are the transmission of music from a music player to personal headphones or speakers. These don’t require a lot of bandwidth and the distance between the music player, and the headphones is usually under a metre. Combined these factors make Bluetooth the chosen technology as battery life is a primary factor in deciding which technology to use! Games consoles also now use Bluetooth for similar reasons, and this has now almost completely taken over from previous technologies such as cabled connections, or the seemingly extinct infrared connection! Infrared does still have its place with televisions and other home audio, but even here, Bluetooth is taking over, particularly with new standards such as DNLA becoming ever more common. The general movement is towards one standard for all devices so that compatibility issues become a thing of the past, and that’s a good thing with the vast array of constantly evolving consumer electronic products.
The medical field has also adopted Bluetooth for many of its traditional hard-wired diagnostic equipment such as electrocardiograms, pulse oximeters and a whole host of other small electronic devices. It’s likely to give rise to a new market of home medical equipment that will allow patients to connect equipment to their computers and smartphones. Something that was previously notoriously difficult due to the number of proprietary connectors in use.
And it’s not just at home or in industry where Bluetooth has the upper hand. On the move, there’s been a rapid and exponential rise in the number of devices that talk to each other in vehicles. Most common are headsets, GPS systems and music players. Again, the number of different connectors from multiple manufacturers made connectively a minefield for vehicle manufacturers but now, with the standardisation of Bluetooth, this has all but disappeared. Except in the area of charging the devices that are, although fortunately the USB connection has somewhat solved this problem!
As most of us spend significant time in the car and use our phone, Bluetooth has been a savior both for ease of use and staying on the right side of the law. Most smartphones now automatically connect to the car’s built-in audio system once initially paired. And pairing is an important aspect of Bluetooth technology, without it the system would be unsecured at best and chaos at worst! In the same way that most Wi-Fi networks require a security key. Bluetooth requires a code to be entered, initiated by one of the devices and entered on the other, if the codes match then the devices will pair correctly.
This pairing used to be a bit of a fine art, particularly when connecting to devices that had been used by many Bluetooth devices previously. But as with ever improving software and more resilient connections, the process is virtually seamless.
OTA or over-the-air updates have also become very popular with Bluetooth, especially with in-car GPS units, which typically don’t have access to a mobile data network themselves. The GPS typically connects to the device with access to a mobile data network (usually a mobile phone) and updates its maps and firmware as required. This system of pairing also is used with real-time traffic information, which can update GPS routes within minutes, often saving consideration time when an incident or congestion occurs along the current calculated route.
Bandwidth has also improved, with the latest in car entertainment systems being capable of streaming video from a portable storage device onto an in-car display, it seems that Bluetooth is certainly here to stay. The only potential fly in the ointment is the latest protocol used by USB 3.0, which uses a similar wavelength as Bluetooth to transmit data. However, this is likely to be solved with new standards and better shielding to USB cables to reduce any radio-frequency interference.