Blue Tooth Low Energy

One of the interests I came across as I have been working with NFC technology over the last 2 years is Bluetooth and how it can be used in new and novel ways.  Bluetooth is actually a rather old technology, originally invented by Ericsson back in 1994 as a way to exchange data over distances measuring in feet.

It has a newer incarnation called Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE), Bluetooth Smart, or Bluetooth 4.0 (they are all the same thing).  The point is, BTLE now consumes very little power, thus enabling your smart phone to host any software wishing to take advantage of this hardware component.  Apps can now be written that use BTLE to “always be on” in the background, without draining your battery – allowing you to do things like update your apps, your location, or in the case of many games, whose turn it is.

When typically discussed in the media, BTLE is most often mentioned as a micro-location service most readily associated with Apple’s protocol called iBeacons.  This is Apple’s way of creating a simple identification “beacon” or transmitted signal from a device (such as an iPhone) that says who the device is and allows two other signal identifiers to go with it.  iBeacons utilize a function of BTLE called proximity sensing that measures the distance between the transmitter and the receiver.  This is the premise for location tracking, or the ability to know where someone is within a given area, such as a store like Macy’s or Walmart.   With this, you can use the customer’s location via their iPhone’s transmitting iBeacon signal, to send them a coupon or notification to an app on their phone when they are close to something specific.  There are plenty of uses of micro-location outside of advertising and push notification for coupons, but most of the app development I’ve seen to date has been related to this particular usage.

The second most common use of BTLE seems to be enabling mobile payments.  This is where BTLE and NFC compete head-to-head.  If there is any pervasive use of NFC in the U.S (much more abroad), it would be enabling a user to pay for something via bumping their phone to a physical device that reads their information and completes the transaction.  NFC currently requires that you be about an inch away from the device you are interacting with, in order for the transaction to take place.  Bluetooth expands on this same function to broaden the distance the two devices can communicate.  For example, rather than waiting in line at a grocery store to pay for your groceries, a customer with the right app could potentially scan their selected products’ barcodes with their camera phone, tap a button to make a payment to the grocery store and walk out without waiting in line.

Mobile payments and micro-location are on the forefront of the tech pioneer industry.  They seem to be most prevalent when discussing the viability of making money in this field, and with good reason.  Many big players are already in the field including titans like Google, Apple, and Visa/MasterCard.  I am a proponent of the idea that these two applications pale in comparison to the potential of BTLE as a way to create a clean front-end user experience to any complicated back-end database.

An example: Consider the environment of a large retail store such as The Home Depot and the very myriad number of products that are housed within any given store.  Each product is marked with an unique ID, specific to that Brand, product, and packaging.  The ID is stored in a database somewhere that keeps track of each product created and its supposedly unique ID.  Typically, these IDs are printed onto labels such as barcodes or QR codes and slapped onto a shelf or container housing the product.  The barcode can be scanned by a reader to identify the part for shipping, purchasing, quantifying, etc.

Instead of printing the label and placing it on a shelf where it must remain immovable and unchangeable, suppose the label used is actually not fixed in place and quite changeable.  Instead of a barcode, replace with a BTLE tag which can be read from 100 feet away, provides an accurate measure of location within inches, and can be altered as needed without ever touching the tag itself.  This warehouse management option is not novel by any means as there are some industrious thinkers attempting to create cheap, easily managed solutions to track every item in your warehouse.  No easy feat in itself.

The example is one way that a database of “items” can be tracked and managed by an application on a phone or tablet.  Why limit the technology to products in a warehouse.  Houses, garages, offices, hospitals, and even vehicles offer plenty of opportunity for an opportunistic thinker to take advantage of an up and coming technology.  Ideas abound, and it should be interesting to see how the players shake out over the coming months.

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