Bluetooth Low Energy in public spaces

This lower-cost technology could greatly enhance consumer convenience for many applications.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the new low-energy form of Bluetooth (BLE) recently, with an eye toward thinking about ways it can be used. The core advantages the protocol has over other similar standards is that it’s optimized for lower data rates, and extremely long battery life. While we may complain about how much energy a Wi-Fi device uses, it’s acceptable to charge your phone once a day. If we could eliminate the need to recharge, what lower-data rate applications could we build?

The most obvious application of something like BLE is that it communicates over a shorter range, and therefore, can provide precise location information. Companies like Euclid Analytics measure foot traffic by using Wi-Fi signals, so the precision of the location is fairly rough. BLE devices have a smaller operating range, and thus would be able to provide information on what aisle a person is in instead of a broad area of the store. (And yes, there are obvious privacy concerns here, especially given that many users tend to accept all the privileges requested by an app running on their phone, which might make BLE-enabled location personally identifiable.)

An alternative way of using BLE to support purchasing is that it allows locations to describe themselves. Say, for example, that my favorite pizza place has put in a BLE “beacon” that announces itself to the world, and they have created an app for my smartphone that lets me order. I place the order for a pizza with my app. When I walk into the store, my phone is listening for the BLE beacon, wakes up, and uses a network connection (either Wi-Fi or 4G) to tell the store computer that I have arrived to pick up order number whatever, and it charges a credit card on file to give me an electronic receipt. Charging could be done through a merchant account, or even PayPal or Square, which would make it easier for a small take-out restaurant to perform this task. At a busy pizza place, not having to handle payments can speed up the line substantially. (Privacy is a substantially smaller concern in this case because there isn’t much to analyze that the company would not have already known from their cash register.) In this case, BLE is used to wake up a higher-speed interface so that the higher-speed, and likely higher-power, interface can stay asleep for much of the time.

Many busy restaurants hand out wireless discs to tell you when your table is ready. In a slightly different version of the BLE-triggered payment, when you walk into a restaurant, your phone could notice it is in a restaurant due to the presence of a BLE beacon. At this point, an app on the phone could automatically check you in with the host. Conceivably, an app could monitor on-time performance of seating for the restaurant’s management.

A more generic form of queue management would be to monitor when you enter a line and when you exit by using BLE devices at the entry and exit points of the queue. Banks, for instance, might be interested in using queue analytics to determine the right number of tellers to staff. As a frequent traveler, real-time measurements of wait times at security checkpoints would be fabulous as well.

BLE is exciting because it’s a relatively inexpensive technology that can allow applications to gather highly detailed information about the physical world. Apps can learn about where they are and what they are near without needing to rely on a massive GPS database, and mobile devices can gather data that today is too labor-intensive to create and too difficult to report in real time.

If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.