New Bluetooth spec could mean a comeback for wristwatches

Bluetooth 4.0 supports low power 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 watches these days.

But that could soon change, thanks to the Bluetooth 4.0 specification, which was 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, Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) Executive Director Michael Foley said Wednesday.

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 among watchmakers, who have seen young people, mostly between the ages of 14 and 30, forgo wearing watches because they get the time from their phones, 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 that could begin appearing in 2011. He didn't name any of the watchmakers, 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 maintain 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, for instance, be used 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 controls and related devices, he said.

Foley does not, however, expect the new spec to be used in wireless networks for mobile wallets, an area where Near Field Communications (NFC) is gathering steam. With NFC technology, a user can transmit the data necessary to complete a transaction by touching a smartphone or other device to a receiver -- or just by waving the device near the receiver.

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 that rely on cellular wireless connections, not Bluetooth. For example, LG Electronics introduced the 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.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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