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Bluetooth 4.0 could help return of the wristwatch

New low power spec for battery-powered devices

Remember wristwatches? With the surge in smartphones and their instant access to time and other information, fewer people seem to wear a watch these days.

But that could soon change, thanks to the Bluetooth 4.0 specification approved last month. It specifies ways for making low-power wireless network connections over short distances.

That means a watch or other device with a standard coin-cell or "button" battery that is worn on a wrist, kept in a pocket or worn on a necklace could communicate with a person's smartphone or laptop. Using the wireless connection, the watch could display data received from the larger device, said Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) Executive Director Michael Foley.

All sorts of small, low-power devices could rely on Bluetooth 4.0, including building sensors, laptops, fitness devices and TV and stereo remote controls, he said.

But the specification has sparked particular interest by watchmakers, who have seen young people, mostly between the ages of 14 and 30, give up their watches and telling time from a phone, Foley said.

"The specification opens up new categories of Bluetooth devices," he said. "You could replicate your phone on your watch for caller ID information or [to activate] a music player."

Foley said several watchmakers in Asia have expressed interest to the Bluetooth SIG about incorporating Bluetooth 4.0 in watches, which could begin appearing in 2011. He didn't name any, however.

Bluetooth 4.0 uses less power than earlier versions by shutting down the Bluetooth radio as much as possible between uses and by reducing the number of signal "trips" required to set up and keep a connection between devices. Earlier versions of Bluetooth required several such trips; that number has been reduced to only one or two in Bluetooth 4.0, he said.

As for other uses, Foley said Bluetooth 4.0 could be used with sensors in a star topology where one or more of the sensors communicates with a central radio or controller. (Since the spec doesn't allow sensors to pass data directly to each other, a different type of "mesh" design isn't supported.) Star topologies with Bluetooth 4.0 could be used, for instance, by a company to take readings from thermostats or motion detectors.

Bluetooth 4.0 is also expected to compete against the Zigbee Alliance's low-power networking specification in TV remote control and related devices, he said.

Foley does not, however, expect the new spec to be used as a wireless network for mobile wallets, an area where Near Field Communications (NFC) is gathering steam. In NFC, a user can touch or bring near a smartphone or other device to a receiver to transmit data, such as a cash transfer.

Bluetooth 4.0 offers the high-speed data transfer capabilities of Bluetooth 3.0, introduced in 2009, which allows devices to jump from Bluetooth to Wi-Fi 802.11 networks. Of course, to make the jump from Bluetooth to Wi-Fi, the device would also have to have a Wi-Fi radio, which might not be practical for watches.

In the meantime, several manufacturers have introduced wireless wristwatch phones based on cellular wireless connections, not Bluetooth. For example, LG Electronics showed a Touch Watch Phone at CES in 2009.

At CTIA this past March, Kempler & Strauss showed off the W PhoneWatch , a wearable GSM phone and wristwatch priced at $199.


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