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Beacons Light The Way To All-Encompassing Bluetooth Connectivity



Industry analyst IHS predicts that Bluetooth connectivity on all mobile-phone types will reach 96% by 2018. They will ultimately become the enabling hub, connecting an increasing range of consumer products from fitness and health equipment and sleep monitors to proximity tags and even toothbrushes.

IHS also predicts impressive growth of Bluetooth technology in the home. LCD TVs will see Bluetooth connectivity climb from today’s 19% to 33% by 2018, while mobile computer penetration is expected to rise from 56% to 75% in 2018. It becomes eminently clear, then, that computers working as home hubs will stimulate the growth of Bluetooth Smart accessories for diverse applications.

Evidence of those trends comes by way of low-power and RF specialists Nordic Semiconductor, which just launched a reference design for Bluetooth Smart beacons. The nRF51822 Bluetooth Smart Beacon Kit, based on Nordic’s nRF51822 system-on-a-chip (SoC), is designed to enable demonstration and development of iBeacon and proprietary beacon hardware for iOS and Android smartphones. Bluetooth Smart beacons are low-energy wireless transmitters that can relay positional information to nearby Bluetooth Smart Ready smartphones.

Straight Out Of The Box

An important design aspect of the Beacon Kit is that engineers can develop beacon applications using Apple’s iBeacon standards, or create their own beacons based on their own specifications with Bluetooth Smart.

Nordic says the kit works straight out of the box with companion smartphone apps for iOS and Android (4.1/4.3) smartphones. Firmware, available as source code from the company, allows the formation of pilot beacon scenarios to test product ideas.

The kit exploits the nRF51822 SoC’s support of full Over-The-Air Device Firmware Upgrade (OTA-DFU), which enables all beacon firmware to be updated in situ. In addition, Nordic claims users can quickly and easily modify and add to Android and iOS apps.

Beacons undoubtedly open the door to a number of diverse possibilities, such as operating as an in-house form of GPS facility. Currently, their main function revolves around contextual awareness, which provides users with information relating their proximity to a point of interest (POI). While the beacon relays only its identity, it’s the smartphone, through the use of an app or direct services, which provides all of the information accessible by the user that relates to the particular beacon’s location.

Thus, potential uses for beacons range far and wide. They could include special promotions at retail stores, products available in stock, exhibits in public galleries and museums, train and bus terminals, and shopping-list reminders.

In practical terms, Bluetooth Smart beacons use advertising packets that include fields to indicate the beacons’ identity. Smartphones utilize internal Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) to estimate distance between a handset and beacons. While beacons themselves only relay advertising—not contextual information—to  smartphones, the phones use the advertising packets to determine the beacon’s identity (for example, via the phone app) and decide on the information and/or actions that should be associated with that beacon’s location. Permitted actions will vary between phone vendors, depending on imposed limitations, but may include audible alerts, vibrations, and triggering of other apps.

Tuning Function

The nRF51822 Beacon Kit employs Nordic-developed hardware, firmware, and software, and supports both iOS 7 and Android (4.3/4.1) operating systems. Since each brand and model of smartphone exhibits different RSSI levels (due to electromagnetic variations stemming from, say, the individual casing enclosure or antenna employed), the kit includes a tuning function that allows consistent performance regardless of phone model.

The introduction of Apple’s iBeacon service generated great interest in beacons. In 2013, Apple Stores began rolling out iBeacons that work with the Apple Store App—the first introduction of the technology on a large scale. Now many stores want to get into the act to leverage the possibilities of contextual marketing.

On this front, the nRF51822 Beacon Kit can be configured for iBeacon compatibility. To note, membership to Apple’s “Made For iPhone” (MFI) program is mandatory for iBeacon development.

The nRF51822 Beacon Kit is a fully functioning demonstrator of Bluetooth Smart beacon technology. All design files also are available from Nordic, which allows for customization to a designer’s requirements. The kit includes one beacon and full access to software (plus the design files).

Additional Software

Along with the kit, Nordic announced S110 SoftDevice v7.0. It’s the next major release for the company’s Bluetooth low-energy stack—the nRF51822 Bluetooth low-energy and 2.4-GHz proprietary SoC—and the nRF51422 ANT and ANT/Bluetooth low-energy multiprotocol SoCs. (A SoftDevice is Nordic’s self-contained stack for nRF51 series SoCs that incorporates an RF protocol and its associated management framework.)

The S110 SoftDevice v7.0 offers a range of new features: Over-The-Air Device Firmware Upgrade (OTA-DFU), concurrent Peripheral/Broadcaster roles, support for concurrent multiprotocol Bluetooth low-energy/2.4-GHz RF proprietary operation, and compliance with the latest version of Bluetooth wireless technology (Bluetooth v4.1). As a result, end products using the S110 SoftDevice will be qualified to the Bluetooth standard.

The nRF51 Series SoCs’ flash-based architecture and the S110 SoftDevice’s OTA-DFU are flexible to firmware upgrades, something not possible on alternative static ROM/OTP-based ULP wireless SoCs. Now, upgrades to the nRF51822 and nRF51422 SoCs’ stacks and application firmware can be done quickly and easily using the devices’ own wireless link.

The OTA-DFU feature allows for complete application and protocol stack upgrades; it’s not limited to just partial updates and patching. When using OTA-DFU, firmware upgrades can be delivered in multiple ways, depending on the chip’s use case. 

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