The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has a new focus on IoT, especially in bringing Bluetooth shelf labels and tags to market and other settings. According to Ken Kolderup, chief marketing officer at SIG, the organization is developing a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) standard for electronic shelf labels and is discussing what standards BLE electronic tags may require. This is among several efforts SIG is taking to modify the Bluetooth protocol for the mass market.
SIG’s focus on retail also shows a compelling relationship between two companies that I think will accelerate the use of IoT sensors in retail settings and that I think we should start talking about today.
Earlier this year, I wrote about Energous and Wiliot working with an integrator to bring Energous’ over-the-air (OTA) power transmitters and Wiliot’s battery-free Bluetooth tags to an Australian supermarket. The store places Bluetooth tags on items to track inventory in real time, prevent theft, and provide condition monitoring. Thousands of used tags receive continuous power from Energous transmitters hanging from the ceiling.
This use case has a big future, according to SIG. Kolderup told me that he expects to see both significant growth in the Bluetooth radio market due to the economic changes offered by low-cost Bluetooth tags such as those offered by Wiliot and the availability of consistent wireless capabilities. And he is not alone.
Steve Statler of Wiliot calls this the beginning of the era of “Ambient IoT.” Unlike Amazon or Google, who use that phrase to mean a smart home that anticipates your needs, Statler is talking about hundreds of millions of sensors that will share data about their location and location through nearby gateways. Wiliot already has deals to make such tags cheaper, like the one it signed earlier this year with Avery Dennison, which can now make Wiliot’s wireless Bluetooth tags for less than 10 cents each.
Inexpensive tags that don’t require batteries are just one element needed to make Statler’s IoT vision a reality. Having a reliable power source that doesn’t require battery replacement is another. This is where Energous comes in. Energous received FCC approval this year for wireless OTAs, and has a partnership to provide OTA power to Wiliot tags.
As Cesar Johnston, CEO of Energous, explained to me, the transmitters are placed around the structure like wireless access points, and can provide power to hundreds of tags. In addition to providing Energy with local and regional information, it is also interested in providing real-time pricing. And by working with e-ink screen manufacturers, that too will be achieved. Stores are already testing ways to update prices up to 10 times a day.
“Now it’s not about the batteries,” said Johnston. “It’s really about how much energy do I need and when do I need it?” For him, Bluetooth tags or real-time e-ink price displays are a small part of the market for his company’s OTA power transmitters, which can also be used in home, industrial, and business settings to power any number of devices.
But in grocery stores, it’s Kolderup who envisions a store that can lower the price of an expiring product as it nears the end of its life. At the moment, I see a future where toilet paper before a snowstorm is more expensive, or price matching across chains is instantaneous. In other words, this is a technology that will require some form of oversight and debate about ethics.
In both of these use cases, there are still a few other elements that need to be aligned. This is where the Bluetooth SIG can play a role. Kolderup told me that, when it comes to OTA-powered sensors in retail settings, SIG is working on a common data format so that tags from different systems will work together. It also processes some kind of encryption so that the data from those tags doesn’t leak everywhere. Other technical features include some sort of standard way of handling energy harvesting that provides dynamic markers. And should that happen over the 900 MHz spectrum? Or the 2.4 GHz spectrum?
Collaboration at the tag level and gateway level will be important, and according to Kolderup, retailers are already looking for it. Regarding the SIG’s efforts regarding electronic shelf labels, it has launched a working group to explore options and ideas for collaboration and standards. Kolderup said SIG sees sales of 150 million labels by 2022 and expects that number to reach 300 million by 2023. And this is just the beginning. Imagine if all the labels in every store you visit were electronic and could be adjusted in real time. That’s a lot of labels.
Then imagine everything on those shelves has a BLE-powered tag that can transmit its location and environmental data. Because that’s when we first see the Internet of Everything.