By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/30/2008 8:05:41 PM ET 2008-01-31T01:05:41

It doesn’t have the kind of name that elicits excitement among consumers.

Often, it evokes frustration. Just talk to someone who has tried to get their wireless phone to connect to their wireless headset using what’s known as the pairing process.

But 10 years after its first prototypes were released, Bluetooth, a technology that allows devices within a 33-foot range to connect wirelessly, is “one of the most successful interface technologies of all time,” said Brian O’Rourke, principal analyst for In-Stat, which does market research and analysis of advanced communications services.

“In 2007 alone, just under 800 million devices worldwide shipped with Bluetooth,” he said.

The bulk of them were cell phones and headsets, those annoying looking little earpieces that make a growing number of people on the planet appear to be walking around talking to themselves.

Bluetooth is also used in Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3 wireless controllers, although gamers may not be paying attention to that.

And that’s just fine, said Michael Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which developed the technology named after a 10th century Danish king.

The name might be “a little” off-putting to consumers, he said, but “it’s more important that consumers understand what they’re able to do with the technology,” rather than what’s behind it.

If the start of its second 10 years is an indication, Bluetooth has some promising improvements that will make pairing less onerous (coming this year), and some new uses that could prove to be life-saving, as well as life-enhancing (coming next year).

Getting it together
Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Bluetooth has been the pairing process that’s involved in the initial setup of getting two devices to “talk” to each other.

“The pairing process has always been a little bit cumbersome,” said Anne Raaen Rasmussen, acting general manager of the mobile business unit at GN Netcom, which makes Jabra headsets.

“It has been illogical, the way you had to enter a four-digit code,” she said.

A new Bluetooth specification, 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), approved last summer by the Bluetooth SIG, adds secure simple pairing — and eliminates the need to enter a code.

“One of the key areas (with 2.1) was to simplify the out-of-the-box experience” for consumers, said Foley.

“It’s also more secure, because the devices themselves do some encryption behind the scenes that the user never even sees,” said Fred Zimbric, director of technology enablers on Motorola’s companion products team.

Cell phones and headsets featuring the 2.1+EDR specification should be on the market by late spring.

“All you will have to do is bring the handset and headset next to each other, and they will pair automatically,” said Rasmussen.

It’s important to remember that in order to get the benefits of a 2.1+EDR headset, you’ll need a phone that also is enabled with that specification.

At-home medical monitoring
With a growing number of baby boomers aging and insurance costs rising, “the medical community is trying to provide the same level of coverage as it has been, but do as much of it as remotely as possible,” said Foley.

“We have a working group of several companies from the medical industry that are very excited about using Bluetooth in sensor-types of devices,” he said.

A patient using a glucose or heart monitor with a Bluetooth sensor, for example, could be wirelessly connected to the doctor’s office by computer or phone so that the doctor could check the data “and see if the patient needs to be brought in for a more thorough investigation,” Foley said.

For exercisers, the same technology could be used in Bluetooth sensor devices to monitor their workouts, said Zimbric of Motorola.

“You could use that information to analyze how your workout was, what was your peak heart, what was your sustained heart rate, what was your caloric burn, how many miles did you run — and you can store all that information on the phone, transfer it to your laptop, and then aggregate that data over weeks and months to track your progress,” he said.

An ultra-low power version of Bluetooth that is being developed now will make such sensor devices feasible.

“We expect to be able to test those specifications the second half of this year, and finalize them in early 2009,” Foley said. “Products based on the technology would start coming out after that.”

Faster downloads of music, video
Bluetooth transmits data at a rate of between 1 and 3 megabits per second, said O’Rourke of In-Stat. It’s a speed that’s equivalent to many Internet broadband connections.

“There’s a high-speed version of Bluetooth being worked on that will move that rate into the hundreds of megabits-per-second range,” he said.

“If you look at where cell phones may be headed, there’s a need to get more and more data on and off them. That need for greater data will tax standard Bluetooth at current rates.

“But if you can allow Bluetooth to push more data on and off the phone, and if your phone is also an MP3 player, you could wirelessly download a song in seconds, rather than in minutes.”

“When we enable high-speed Bluetooth, the entire music player experience will be able to be done wirelessly, from the logging on of the device to the playback,” said Foley.

The timeline for high-speed Bluetooth is the same as for the lower-power version of it, with testing being done this year, finalization of the specifications expected early next year, and product releases in 2009 as well, Foley said.

Bluetooth-equipped cars
Bluetooth’s biggest use in the car has been enabling drivers to talk hands-free.

That has become more important as states pass laws that ban driving while talking on a handheld cell phone. So far, those states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Utah, as well as the District of Columbia.

Both California and the state of Washington have approved a similar ban, which takes effect July 1.

While a growing number of new cars are coming equipped with Bluetooth for hands-free talking, several third-party products, from hands-free kits to GPS devices, are also available.

“The Bluetooth aftermarket in 2007 was around 25 million units, representing a 54 percent increase from 2006,” said Fiona Thomson, senior market analyst for IMS, which does research for the electronics industry.

Newer devices are incorporating other uses. Motorola’s MotoRokr T505 Bluetooth In-Car Speakerphone and Digital FM Transmitter ($139.99) attaches to a car’s sun visor and wirelessly transmits music and phone calls from a Bluetooth phone or MP3 player through a car’s stereo.

If music is playing and a call comes in, the music automatically pauses so the call can be received. Other companies making similar products include Jabra, Nokia and Parrot.

The hands-free voice and music playing option is the basic foundation of Sync, a joint venture between Microsoft and Ford, which is built into some 2008 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury models. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Sync costs $395 as a stand-alone option.

In the future, higher-speed Bluetooth could be used to stream video and audio from a mobile player to rear-seat entertainment screens, said Foley of the Bluetooth SIG.

And, “with the ultra low-power version of Bluetooth, there are discussions about using Bluetooth to connect some of the sensors in the car to query the status of other sensors in the auto, such as the air pressure of tires.

“We want to continue to expand and adopt the technology so that any devices people want to have communicate within their personal area network, that Bluetooth is the best technology to do that,” he said.

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