Bluetooth Low Energy Chips Drives New End Markets Leveraging Smartphone Displays, Internet Link

By: Jonah McLeod, Dir. of Corp. Mkt. Comm. at Kilopass Technology Inc.

There is a new wave of start-up companies leveraging Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) chips to build products for new and emerging markets. Besides well funded activity monitors from Nike, FitBit and others, there are hundreds of start-ups taking aim at the burgeoning opportunity.  Nick Hunn of WiFore Consulting describes a number in his article “To Ubiquity and Beyond: Bluetooth Smart (LE) and the Growth of Appcessories.” He lists Green Goose and its sensor-enabled toys—including Teddo the Bear; Parrot’s Flower Power—moisture sensor for plants, among others. Many of these start-ups are bootstrap ventures financed by crowd funding, angels, and in some cases venture-backed. Summing all the small market niches these companies serve results in a good-sized, growing opportunity.  According to statistics portal Statista, in 2013, revenue for the machine-to-machine market amounted to $32.8B growing at an annual rate of 13.4 percent reaching around $54.3 billion by 2017.

These young new ventures share the common need for long battery life, on the order of months or years on a single coin cell battery. This requirement drives the architecture of these new devices. A power profile of any communicating devices—keyboard, mouse, auto key fob, garage door opener—shows that the most power hungry function is the communications link, thus the importance of Bluetooth Low Energy to reduce power consumed by the transmitting radio; for battery life the less communications the better. To achieve the lowest power, what were once modules comprising an individual sensor, radio, and applications processor, for example the FitBit, are giving way to modules with sensor and integrated radio and 32-bit microcontroller that can handle both networking and application processing.

In this highly integrated architecture, the local microcontroller processes data being collected and determines when to activate the radio and send the data to the network, thus saving power over the independently functioning separate chips. Semiconductor vendors are scrambling to fill the rapidly growing number of newly created sockets.  To better understand this transition, let’s consider the new products incorporating these more power efficient integrated devices, then examine the computing and communications resources within these components, and finally look at the chip vendors all competing to get a piece of this emerging market.

New end products coming to market include items as varied as baby activity monitors and multimeters. All share one common characteristic. To understand this commonality, consider the baby monitors being offered by start-up Rest Devices based in Boston. Called Mimo, the product consists of an organic cotton kimono fitted with non-contact machine washable sensors that measure a baby’s respiration. When paired with the attachable Mimo Turtle, it monitors an infant’s respiration, skin temperature, body position, and activity level. All the data is sent to the Mimo Lilypad Base Station via Bluetooth LE. A package of three cotton onesies, the clip-on sensor pack, and a base station costs $199.  As of this May the startup has received more than $300,000 in pre-orders.  Over 4 million babies are born in the U.S. each year according to  A Best of CES 2014 Award Winner the company had no trouble raising $1.2 million in financing.

Now consider the story of Mooshim Engineering and their innovative Mooshimeter, a multimeter that transmits its measurements to a smartphone for display over Bluetooth LE. The advantage is that the meter can leverage the user interface of the ubiquitous smartphone and build more functions into the meter, such as measuring actual power use, power factor, and harmonic distortion with 24-bit resolution. Best of all, the device can be had for $120.  After listing on Kickstarter for a funding goal of $52,000, Mooshim Engineering raised $110,639.  Both these examples each include a low-power communicating sensor leveraging the ubiquitous smartphone’s display, and more powerful processor to provide value to their customers.

Bluetooth LE is the catalyst for this new wave of products and in combination with higher integration provides enhanced value to the customer. Where before a Bluetooth LE radio, independent applications processor and sensor comprised the solution, the new generation integrates the Bluetooth LE radio with at 32-bit applications processor on the same die. The result is a single computing element that efficiently manages power, reduces silicon size and cost. By processing data locally, the integrated solution stores only relevant data—a rise in temperature, heart rate, or other parameters—and communicates this data to a smartphone for additional processing. For the multimeter, the device communicates to the smartphone to display data processed on the device. Architecturally, the new generation chips come with ARM 32-bit low power processors, analog mixed signal functions that measure voltage and temperature and an interface to external MEMS sensors: gyros, accelerometers, pressure transducers, microphones and the list goes on.

The other architectural change is the memory used by these chips:  SRAM, ROM, and Flash.  On next generation chips, embedded one-time programmable NVM such as licensed by Kilopass Technology, are displacing some of the ROM for flexibility and replacing the Flash for cost. The savings in silicon cost can be as high as 50 percent for memory that is only useful during software development and becomes uneconomical to rewrite in the field. This OTP NVM contains network and application program code as well as parametric and configuration data.  OTP NVM enables chip vendors to build one device then configure its personality at final test or in-system, thus serving many vertical markets with a one-chip design. OTP also provides the end customer the ability to securely store his application software to prevent easy counterfeiting of the product or a hacker maliciously changing the application program.

Who are the major chip vendors competing to enable these emerging new consumer products? A partial list consists of Broadcom, CSR, Dialog Semiconductor, LAPIS Semiconductor, NXP Semiconductors, Nordic Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Toshiba, as well as Qualcomm with publicized product plans.  Since Bluetooth LE opens up a new category of applications, each player has a shot at gaining market share. The criterion for winning is the lowest system power solution at the lowest cost per chip. This new market is a completely green field with each silicon vendor having an equal chance of dominating the market. The differentiation will be in the power and cost of the chip and the product support that enables the end customer to quickly get an end product to market.

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