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Connected Homes August 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Bluetooth Mesh Networking: Standardized

Why is this topic significant?

Smartphone and smart-home-device makers have a golden opportunity to improve ease of installation, ease of use, privacy, and security of home networks—if they choose to do so.

Description

During July 2017, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG)—which governs specifications, certifications, and logos for all Bluetooth-equipped devices—published its requirements for standards-compliant mesh networking. Meshing promises several benefits, especially by allowing Bluetooth gadgets to serve as repeaters, thereby greatly increasing Bluetooth's wireless range. Oddly, the new publications focus almost exclusively on industrial applications. Nevertheless, a Bluetooth SIG press release quotes an official of ARM (whose microprocessor designs dominate smartphones worldwide) saying, "The addition of mesh to the Bluetooth standard will open up significant opportunities for richer experiences in smart homes and building automation, enabling fresh waves of innovation across a range of IoT [Internet of Things] applications."

In general, mesh networks can configure themselves automatically; when enough nodes are present, meshes can be fault tolerant ("self-healing"). Meshes also have privacy and security advantages that could be important to smart homes and IoT applications. These advantages have spurred creation of software that used Bluetooth meshes in the past. For example, Hong Kong protesters used Bluetooth and Wi-Fi meshes to bypass censors in 2014. But the app they used (FireChat) is unsuitable for ultra-low-power devices that run on small, rarely replaced batteries, as in building-security and climate-control sensors and actuators. The new standard has the potential to demolish that impediment.

Implications

The Bluetooth brand and its logo might assure users that a vendor's equipment and software can interoperate with other mesh-capable offerings in a world where people expect everything to network with everything else. Pervasive implementations in smartphones might extend people's familiar experiences of wireless wonders such as Bluetooth speakerphones and audio systems into a far larger universe of IoT automation and security applications. An Apple-like ecosystem of enthusiastic developers could propel Bluetooth to victory as the wireless technology that people identify most closely with the IoT.

But will smartphone makers and developers of smart-home devices jointly take advantage of the opportunity? The matter is highly uncertain. It's also far from clear whether an industrial-strength version of Bluetooth will appeal to industrial and commercial players, for whom Bluetooth is late to the game.

Impacts/Disruptions

Some users and developers are likely to see the new standard as merely evolutionary, considering that some homes already have Bluetooth speakers, lightbulbs, and door locks. The skeptics may be perfectly correct in their views yet thoroughly unimaginative. In fact, Bluetooth has consistently been a poor choice for home-security, climate-control, and general-automation duties on account of its rigid scope of use, not just its limited range. The Bluetooth SIG's strategy of delineating exactly how a Bluetooth gadget will work (for example, different specifications for makers of headsets and for developers of apps that can exchange smartphone-contact information) has had the effects of making Bluetooth easy to use and popularizing the technology and has equally had the effect of deterring Bluetooth developers from doing anything that the Bluetooth SIG has not already thought of.

Needs for industrial and commercial solutions might drive progress toward enabling Bluetooth to be a platform of choice for open innovation, but other skeptical factions will favor one or another of the many existing mesh-capable alternatives to Bluetooth. Moreover, the slowly emerging HaLow standard from the Wi-Fi Alliance might disrupt all other roadmaps for mesh networking.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, software development

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

OK, Assistant, Show Me

Why is this topic significant?

Integration of displays with audio-based virtual personal-assistant gadgets such as Amazon's Echo and Google Home promises to improve usability and might help fulfill visions of artificially intelligent smart homes.

Description

During June 2017, Amazon.com started selling Echo Show, a version of Echo that includes a 7-inch, 1024-x-600-pixel display that lets the Alexa virtual personal assistant express itself visually. Amazon and third-party developers have enabled or are working on abilities to respond to verbal requests by displaying, for example, recipes (potentially easier to use than spoken versions), song lyrics (enabling speech-controlled karaoke), and images from cameras (enabling videoconferencing, baby monitoring, and so on).

During May 2017, Google promised to enable its Google Home device to accept spoken requests to have a user's existing TV set display, for example, a weather forecast for a user's calendar event, as well as YouTube videos, playlists, and recommendations. But note that Google, Amazon, and other players all remain at an early stage of developing applications that integrate video with speech and artificial intelligence.

Implications

During recent years, people have used speech for limited hands-free control of video on TV sets. Now, integration of speech with fixed displays is set to improve greatly. Much initial interest could come from entertainment junkies who want to ditch their collections of handheld remote controls and enjoy voice-controlled playback of videos from diverse cloud services, streaming devices, digital video recorders, and home servers. Interoperability will improve, but audiences might continue to face limits in their abilities, for example, to use Google products to control Amazon Prime and to use Amazon products to control Google Play (both of which currently are impossible, because the competitors block each others' services on their respective platforms).

In an ideal case, the benefits of showing, not just telling, could transcend mundane concerns about whether a user has enough ways to watch Game of Thrones. The real-world game of cutthroat technological competition will sooner or later endow images with a status equal to that of sounds for responding to spoken requests. Speech is often the ideal way to ask a question, but images are often better than words for responsive descriptions of people, places, and things; weather, sports, and financial reports; procedures such as recipe and product instructions; and so on. Virtual personal-assistant devices will continue to evolve such capabilities for years to come.

Impacts/Disruptions

In many films and TV shows, a user seems to address spoken requests to a smart home, not a particular gadget, and the home seems to respond with spoken words, audio, video, lights, climate controls, or whatever is necessary to convey the idea that a helpful intelligence is ready, able, and willing to serve the user's domestic needs (or a malevolent home betrays the user, depending on the story). A user seems to interact with the personification of a building—not the personification of Amazon or Google. Fictional (and a few real) displays depict animated avatars that represent a home's artificial intelligence (AI).

Improved integration that fulfills these visions seems to be inevitable. But the pathways to achieving that integration remain undetermined. Market conditions now favor connected audio gadgets that mostly provide hands-free access to music and spoken-word responses to queries. Subsequent technology generations might enable a supreme scope of applications by favoring a connected gadget that can communicate with any AI and an AI that can communicate with any connected gadget.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, software development

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: