Bluetooth Low Energy: what do we do with you?

Why the dearth of imagination — we need to get beyond different flavors of spyware.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” as Jeff Hammerbacher said. And it’s not just data analysts: it’s creeping into every aspect of technology, including hardware.

One of the more exciting developments of the past year is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Unfortunately, the application that I’ve seen discussed most frequently is user tracking: devices in stores can use the BLE device in your cell phone to tell exactly where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, and target ads, offer you deals, send over salespeople, and so on.

Color me uninterested. I don’t really care about the spyware: if Needless Markup wants to know what I’m looking at, they can send someone out on the floor to look. But I am dismayed by the lack of imagination around what we can do with BLE.

If you look around, you’ll find some interesting hints about what we might be able to to with BLE:

  • The Tile app is a tag for a keychain that uses BLE to locate lost keys. In a conversation, O’Reilly author Matthew Gast suggested that you could extend the concept to develop a collar that would help to locate missing pets. That scenario requires some kind of accessibility to neighbor’s networks, but for a pie-in-the-sky discussion, it’s a good idea.
  • At ORDCamp last weekend, I was in a wide-ranging conversation about smart washing machines, wearable computing, and the like. Someone mentioned that clothes could have tags that would let the washer know when the settings were wrong, or when you had the colors mixed. This is something you could implement with BLE. Water wouldn’t be a problem since you could seal the entire device, including the battery; heat might be an issue. But again, we’re talking imagination, what might be possible. We can solve the engineering problems later.
  • One proposal for our Solid conference involved tagging garbage cans with BLE devices, to help automate garbage collection. I want to see the demo, particularly if it includes garbage trucks in a conference hall.

Why the dearth of imagination in the press and among most of the people talking about the next generation of Bluetooth apps? Why can’t we get beyond different flavors of spyware? And when BLE is widely deployed, will we see devices that at least try to improve our quality of life, or will the best minds of our generation still be pitching ads?

Come to Solid to be part of that discussion. I’m sure our future will be full of spyware. But we can at least brainstorm other more interesting, more useful, more fun applications of low-power wireless computing.

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  • http://twitter.com/tamberg tamberg

    Long range BLE for pet tracking seems to be real, too (http://blutracker.com/ )

  • Richie

    Isn’t the main point of BLE that you can use it for lots of small things to communicate with each other?

    So it would be ideal for swarms of drones. This sort of thing, but smaller.

    http://www.defensenews.com/article/20130612/C4ISR/306120029/Drone-Swarm-Networks-Small-UAVs-Offer-Big-Capabilities

    • http://wildsong.biz/ Brian Wilson

      Not really, it’s about lots of small things communicating with one thing, it’s a star topology. And the reason it’s “low energy” is low transmit power (small range) and reduced data rate. Conventional BT would be better for a swarm.

      BLE is for things that need to transmit a little information for a long time, like a weather station on your roof or a tag on your cat.

  • http://wildsong.biz/ Brian Wilson

    Dear Abby,

    I put three cotton O’Reilly t-shirts in my washer with my wife’s delicate sweater and I forgot her handmade sweater did not have a sensor tag. Now it’s three sizes too small for her and she won’t talk to me.

    What should I do?

    In Hot Water

    P.S. Imagine a world in which we nerds solve actual problems instead of creating new ones like clothing that’s also e-waste.