Bluetooth has been with us for around 15 years. Named after Denmark’s King Harald "Bluetooth" Blatand, who reigned in the 10th Century AD, it is a technology that everyone is aware of on their computers and phones, yet not many people choose to use. As a means of allowing devices to talk to each other cheaply and wirelessly over short distances, it has tended to stay largely in the shadows, leaving the limelight to the technologies it connects.
Now however, with the rapid growth in the use of mobile and sensing technologies, along with the release of an updated version of the system, means the list of its applications is growing steadily. From health and agriculture, to business and electioneering, it is quietly playing an ever more central role in many of our lives.
“It’s a very flexible, low power, and predictable technology,” says Professor Roch Guerin, Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University, St. Louis. “Bluetooth targets lower transmission ranges and data rates than wi-fi, and as a result has lower cost and lower power consumption.”
These costs have dropped further, in some cases significantly, thanks to recent advances. Bluetooth Smart, launched in 2011, includes a smarter power management system that allows it to turn on, transmit data and shut down more quickly – in just a few milliseconds in some cases. Depending on the devices being connected and the data being transmitted, this updated system consumes anywhere between half and 1/100th of the power of the previous version. As a result, machines using Bluetooth that previously ran for a few months on a coin cell battery, can now run for years.
“Bluetooth classic is for sending steady streams of voice and audio,” says Suke Jawanda, Chief Marketing Officer of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which owns and licenses Bluetooth technology. “Bluetooth Smart is about sending packets of bits and data to applications.”
Healthcare is frequently cited as one area that hasn’t witnessed the radical transformations underway elsewhere as a result of the ongoing digital mobile revolution. The growth of novel personal medical sensing technologies, many of which use Bluetooth, could soon change this. Earlier this year, a Silicon Valley-based start-up called Scanadu sought to raise $100,000 on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo. In fact donors pledged over $1.6 million, making it the most funded project in the site’s history. The product description may have helped: the Scanadu Scout is perhaps best described as something approaching a real version of the medical tricorder wielded by Star Trek doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
Placing the cookie-sized device to your forehead for 10 seconds provides stats on your heart rate, blood pressure, core body and skin temperature, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure and emotional stress levels. This data is transmitted via Bluetooth to users’ phones or tablets.
"With recent advances in technology such as Bluetooth, we are now able to build medical devices that weren't possible just a decade ago…. at an affordable price [using] existing infrastructure of smart phone telecoms” says Scanadu’s CEO Walter de Brouwer. “For people who live far from hospitals, in places like Africa, this could be life changing.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, a group of researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, is working on BlueCell, a half inch-long device that, once embedded under the skin monitors substances in the blood such as glucose and cholesterol so that chronic diseases like diabetes or the effects of treatments such as chemotherapy can be monitored. The raw medical data, which is sent wirelessly via Bluetooth to an Android app, can be forwarded automatically to doctors. BlueCell is still a few years from commercialisation.