Bluetooth Low Energy (AKA BTSmart)

Posted by:  |  Saturday, November 09, 2013

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I've been working for months with a couple Bluetooth Low Energy chips -- originally the nRF8001 before settling on the Cortex M0 based nRF51822 -- and while there have been some hiccups with the nRF51 chips (anything real time is basically impossible, and I wish some of the peripherals were a bit more robust), it's hard to argue with the price. I'm convinced Nordic really has a winner here!  For <$2 in volume, I'm willing to work around some issues and they apparently have some updates in the pipeline that address the biggest shortcomings of their first generation chips (SPI slave support instead of UART only to talk to the outside world, etc.).

What's really impressed me, though, is BLE itself.  I was already convinced that BLE will become extremely important moving forward now that Android finally got it's act together and added support as of Android 4.3 (seriously, what was up with that?!).  Digging into the specs and design decisions a lot more, though, I've been consistently impressed with the choices they've made at the Bluetooth SIG.  They've made (in my narrow opinion) the right tradeoffs, and seem to have a good understanding of where they wanted to go with this new standard: genuinely low power, low cost, with very small, low data rate sensors in mind and a heavy focus on SmartPhones and coin cells.

It will likely be a while before we unveil a code base and some reference HW or some of the stuff we're working on, but it's pretty exciting technology (definitely the first time anything Bluetooth has seemed exciting in any case)!  It opens up a lot of opportunities for small, lean, nimble HW startups, and the price point and technical barriers have probably never been as low for small personal area sensor networks and anything connecting to a SmartPhone.

If you're looking for a good introduction to BLE, have a look at Bluetooth Low Energy: The Developer's Handbook from Robin Heydon (one of the people involved in the design of BLE so he knows what he's talking about).  It's readable, and does a good job of explaining not just the technology but the thinking behind many of the design decisions.  The data model itself is refreshingly simple, and everything is essentially organized around 'Services' and 'Characteristics', where services are basically just a collection of characteristics that are exposed on the BLE device (server), but it's well presented in the book, and hopefully you'll see more and more BLE tutorials and content in the coming months (including from us)!
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