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2020’s Perfect Storm: Wi-Fi 6, BLE, and AI?

May 4, 2020
The debut of Wi-Fi 6 and the explosion of AI hardware, networks, and tools will open new markets and spur future technology trends.

The innovations of connectivity and AI are about to shift into full gear as new advances—edge computing, Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) v5.2, to name a few—arrive in full force. These developments are quite significant. Wi-Fi 6 will improve robustness and performance, while Bluetooth audio sharing will make it possible for multiple consumers to personally enjoy the audio of a single device. In addition, edge computing will give a significant boost to the Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT).

This is a win-win for those wishing to utilize these technologies, but not everyone will feel like a winner in 2020. The year could bring hardship to AI hardware startups that have risen up after years of long-term and highly intensive R&D. In many ways, this process has led to incredible results, including complex, high-value products. But those products also bring forth a strong patent portfolio, which can act as landmines to competitors. Many firms have failed to keep up, inevitably leading to a decline—and soon, a contraction—within the space.

Let’s take a closer look at these and other notable innovations to watch for as 2020 unfolds.

The Power of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi has changed the world as we know it, but the biggest criticisms are that it often doesn’t work or it’s too slow. Networks are often strained by the number of users on board, a pain point that’s particularly prevalent at airports and other public venues or events. Even the 2012 Olympic Games in London was bogged down by internet access of just 100 kB/s at the opening ceremony. This was on a network that was supposed to offer several hundred megabits per second! But when overloaded, the network failed to deliver a quality experience.

One of the key challenges is simply the way Wi-Fi works. When a mobile device connects to your router at home, for example, it does something called association. The access point sends out messages every few seconds. In the case of the Olympic Games opening ceremony, the devices were in fact “talking” to the access points, saying, “I’m here and I want to send.” However, nothing could actually send, since so many people were on the network simultaneously.

Thus, the most exciting part of Wi-Fi 6 is that it will eliminate this pain point. It will effectively improve robustness and performance with two techniques: colors and orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA). The former involves the use of different access points, which are a problem with current Wi-Fi. Now it’s possible to have different Basic Service Set (BSS) “colors,” or numbers between 0 and 7 that will allow devices to ignore signals from the AP it’s not associated with. In other words, if you’re in an apartment in New York City, your devices will be able to ignore what your neighbors are doing next door and provide a stronger signal. OFDMA helps speed up our connectivity by breaking the spectrum into smaller chunks, enabling more devices to communicate.

Wi-Fi 6 can also help reduce battery drain for small devices. This may not necessarily apply to mobile phones, but for sensors in the home (such as a thermostat), it will be quite significant. Instead of being required to charge the device or change its batteries on a regular basis, Wi-Fi 6 will make it possible to leave them be for a year or longer.

Finally, Wi-Fi 6 will get an additional boost now that the 6-GHz band (1,200 MHz of spectrum) has been opened to unlicensed uses. The latest version of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6E, uses the newly available spectrum to enable devices to connect quicker and for data to transfer faster. It hasn't received approval just yet, but it looks like Wi-Fi 6E could become a reality in 2021, if not sooner.

Sharing is Caring (and Aural Bliss)

The hidden brilliance of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) v5.2 can’t be denied—it offers one of the most impressive changes since the technology was introduced: audio sharing. While this has been possible with Bluetooth Classic, which is quite power-hungry, this is the first time it can be done with BLE. As a result, you’ll receive the same benefits but with much lower power consumption. That means smaller devices with smaller batteries (such as hearing aids) now can take advantage of this impressive feature.

Computing at the Edge of Innovation

At the same time, artificial intelligence will get a boost as edge computing becomes a major factor and a prominent focus within the market. Powerful accelerators will enable devices to run neural networks at the edge of the network. This could present a host of interesting opportunities, particularly for AIoT. As low-cost edge compute nodes make it possible to do more on a tighter budget, the potential will be limitless.

AI Hardware Startups Face the Music, but AI Apps Will Come to the Rescue

AI hardware startups have relied on a multi-year and highly intensive process involving near-endless research and development. This has been effective in getting them to where they are today, but it could come at a price. As every company under the sun rushed to take every dollar available from venture capitalists (VCs), they may not have considered how difficult it would be to demonstrate the value of that investment. If they can’t show the fruits of their labor in 2020, VCs might not be interested in returning for another investment round.

While AI hardware could be challenged this year, AI apps will have their moment to shine. Two primary kits—Apple’s Core ML and Google’s ML—have opened the door to thousands of developers, allowing them to incorporate machine-learning models into their software. This will enable AI-centric apps to reach the mainstream, propelling the technology as users come to recognize its incredible value. This will surely get the interest of VCs, who might be intrigued by apps that can offer features that were once limited to very specific hardware.

The Best is Yet to Come

This year will prove to be an outstanding opportunity for some of our most important technologies, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, to shine while giving future innovations like AI software an opportunity to flourish. AI hardware companies could face increasing pressure if they aren’t able to show that their VC money was worth the investment, but it’s clear others will be waiting to take their place.

Richard Edgar is Senior Director of Product Management at  Imagination Technologies.

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