CSR will give Bluetooth gear in the smart home super powers

This year is going to be a big one for Bluetooth technologies in the smart home. Thanks to some updates in the Bluetooth standard from a year ago, we’re seeing products such as light bulbs, outlets and more using the radio technology to connect devices. But it’s not just the standards update that’s helped; a few firms have also introduced software that have allowed companies to turn their Bluetooth radios into a mesh network that offers more resiliency and range for the technology.

The Bluetooth SIG will embrace mesh

One of the more popular is CSRmesh, the software designed by CSR, the company that helped invent Bluetooth and is now in the process of being acquired by Qualcomm. Now a year old, and primarily used in lighting products like those out from Samsung or Avi-On, the CSRmesh tech lets you group up to 64,000 bulbs or devices together.

But it can do so much more. And soon it will. I took some time to discuss the technology with Rick Walker, who is in marketing with CSR to discover what’s next for the technology and whether we may see it integrated into the official Bluetooth standard anytime soon.

The answer on that last question is a solid maybe. Tuesday, the Blueooth SIG will be announcing the creation of a working group chaired by Robin Heydon, the creator of CSRmesh to study the addition of mesh networking to the Bluetooth Smart standard. While it may not adopt the CSR standard exactly, it’s likely that we will see a mesh technology added to the Bluetooth standard and some aspects of the CSR attributes win out.

Sleepy sensors and actuators

In the meantime, CSR is pushing ahead with the launch in April of a new Home Automation version of the CSRmesh technology that will add new capabilities to the tech to preserve the battery life of sensors and things like door locks in the home. the update will let sensors using the tech wake only when there’s new information to be sent and when they do send it, they can send it to a proxy device, such a light bulb that’s plugged in if the receiving device isn’t online.

csrmeshplan

The second capability it adds is a different wake pattern for actuators such as a door lock or a vent control. These will wake often for a very short amount of time to listen for a message and then go back to sleep. The idea is is should take between 30 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds for a message to hit and flip the bolt, vent or other piece that requires movement.

The goal is to save as much power as possible, without sacrificing responsiveness in the network. Other elements of the CSR mesh that are pretty exciting from a home and building automation point of view are the grouping features and ability to use proximity to trigger events. These won’t be out until the October time frame when the next iteration of the home automation version of the CSRmesh standard comes out, but I want them today.

The asset model looks promising

Because Bluetooth radios are very distance sensitive, you can use them to understand how close you are to a particular item. So when your phone or key fob, for example, is within 20 feet of a lock it might open it. Certain devices can do this today. But as part of the CSRmesh standard that could become much easier to implement, and one could do it for a variety of devices. So your locks could open, or your lights you turn on (or off). It’s part of what Walker called the asset model, where each device with a radio is tagged as an asset and devices respond to it.

Also as part of the asset model, the devices in your home could find a particular asset. So if your keys have a fob, you could issue a command asking your home to find your keys and all of the BLE devices on the mesh could send out a signal. Your kitchen lights might send back a message saying, the key fob is nearby, while a Bluetooth outlet on the counter gets the strongest signals and signals that they are closest to it.

All of these sound pretty awesome, although there are other mesh networking technologies out there including the older ZigBee and Z-wave radios that are in millions of devices. They don’t have the advantage of being on people’s handsets, which is something Bluetooth has going for it. And to get the benefits of CSRmesh, all one has to do is download an application that uses the CSRmesh software on top of a radio running Bluetooth 4.0, which is what current generation iOS and Android handsets are using.

On the security front, the CSRmesh uses AES encryption to stop eavesdroppers and authentication at both ends to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. It also prevents replay attacks where someone can copy messages and replay them, by inserting a numerical sequence at the beginning of each radio transmission that is then replayed out of sequence if copied.

We’ll have to wait for some of the cool features, although the security elements are already in the mesh today. What I take from all of this is that we’re going to be able to solve many of the problems of the smart home many different ways which means standardization is probably a ways off. And that in turn means, it’s hard to go out there and shell out a lot of money for new devices. Although with Bluetooth I guess you don’t have to spend all that much.

Konekt gets $1.3M to create a Twilio for cellular connectivity

The cellular industry has been plugging the internet of things for years under the “machine to machine” moniker, but it never caught on until smartphones, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and cheaper sensors finally made the technology more accessible for makers and mainstream consumers. Yes, you can find M2M applications in industrial settings where high-dollar goods are monitored but, for the most part, the bulky expensive cellular modules and pricey data plans made the telco’s vision of the internet of things a non-starter.

That’s a shame, because there are some applications where a cellular connection is the best option. Maybe it’s for a backup connection in the home gateway if your wireline internet goes out, or for a tracking device that needs a range far beyond your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radios. Which is why I’m interested in the news Thursday that Konekt, a Chicago-based startup founded in 2013, has raised $1.3 million. The company offers what could be an essential service for startups trying to add cellular connectivity to their devices — a universal SIM card and cloud that lets you manage those connections.

I think of it like a Twilio for the cellular world that lets anyone buy access to 2G or 3G networks for a rate that Konekt CEO Ben Forgan called “competitive.” Forgan said the company has a deal with Vodafone and a few smaller carriers that provides the SIM cards and the connectivity, which Konekt resells. But Konekt isn’t just a reseller, it has built a cloud service with a web portal and APIs that let a customer build the SIM into his or her product, and then manage the connection via the APIs and cloud.

That’s a level of service that the telcos or other M2M services providers such as Kore or Raco Wireless often would provider to smaller companies without a lot of complicated negotiations and minimum orders. Konekt will serve customers that want to build 20 devices or provision 2,000. Already Forgan said he has over 200 customers, but he can’t disclose them. Based on the contract with Voadafone, customers of Konekt would find their devices surfing the AT&T and T-Mobile networks in the United States.

I’ve seen a few startups attempt to do this in the past, and it was often the carriers and their onerous terms that held them back, so I’m hopeful that now is finally the right time for smaller companies to have agile access to cellular connectivity in a way that lets them build and prototype devices —  even if they may never grow to be huge businesses. If not, I expect that as the internet of things grows, the amount of cellular connectivity used to connect devices may not grow as quickly as it could have.

Konekt’s investors include NextView Ventures; Mucker Capital; Tyler Willis Syndicate including Maiden Lane; and several former Groupon executives.

Silicon Labs buys Bluetooth and Wi-Fi module maker for $61M

In another bet on the internet of things, chip maker Silicon Labs has purchased Bluegiga Technologies Oy, a Finnish company that makes wireless radio modules for $61 million in cash. Bluegiga makes ultra-low-power Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules for the industrial automation, consumer electronics, automotive, retail, residential, and health and fitness markets. Austin, Texas-based Silicon Labs already makes microcontrollers, sensors, ZigBee and Thread radios and mesh networking software. Adding more radios to the mix just makes sense and makes it more of a single stop for anyone looking to make a connected device.

Homes need better Wi-Fi. Is Eero the answer?

Bad Wi-Fi isn’t just a problem that forces people to move from a comfortable chair in search of a better connection so they can stream their favorite TV show. Increasingly as we connect Wi-Fi-connected appliances or door locks, having bad coverage in an area of the home means that a thermostat or other permanent fixture is stuck wasting battery power trying to keep a connection or simply can’t connect.

As we blanket our homes in connected devices, our Wi-Fi needs to keep up, which means our Wi-Fi networks will likely need to look a lot more like enterprise networks and less like the current home systems with a router in the middle and maybe a repeater or bridge somewhere else. Instead, we’ll need a router and multiple access points so every inch of the home is covered.

But because most homeowners aren’t networking engineers, we’re also going to need hardware and software that makes setting up these more complicated networks a breeze. Apple has its AirPort products, but a new product launching Tuesday wants to bring enterprise Wi-Fi to the masses with a series of beautiful white boxes and cloud-based software controlled from your phone that should give you most of what you need.

Eero is a system of white boxes that will cost about $125 per box or about $300 for a system of three on a pre-order basis. The idea is that each box will cover about 1,000 square feet, although that really depends on the type of home you have. Certain materials are much harder for radio signals to pass through. Each Wi-Fi access point is also an 802.11ac router with 2×2 MIMO and has Bluetooth radios in it so you can also set it up via your cell phone. The boxes support WPA2 encryption.

To install the network, you plug a box into your router and then for subsequent boxes you can install it on your Wi-Fi network and credential it via the Eero app and the Bluetooth radio on your phone.

In layman’s terms, it means the router can handle gigabit speeds and is up to date with the current gear most devices are running. The Bluetooth radio is also interesting because it means these boxes may one day be able to act as a Wi-Fi bridge for Bluetooth devices such as locks. For example, Kevo, August and Lockitron all have introduced Bluetooth-only locks that require a Wi-Fi bridge to offer remote access capabilities. Eero may one day provide that for them, said co-founder and CEO Nick Weaver.

The Eeros should ship in early summer, and Weaver declined to comment on the planned retail strategy and what stores one might find the Eero in. He estimated that the device will have a $150 to $200 price range in actual stores. That’s about the same price as a high-end router today, although the idea is that most average homes would need multiple Eeros. For example, my house, which is tall and skinny, has three access points to cover all of the rooms adequately.

But coverage is only the beginning. Most people today need a lot more than just Wi-Fi. They want far more control over their networks and devices running on the network. Weavers says that the Eero app will let people see what devices are on the network and will also shoot users a push notification when a new device joins the network.

You can also invite people onto the network by letting them install the Eero app or just by texting the, a password and a link. When I told him that signing into a Wi-Fi network didn’t seem terribly broken, he told me that I wasn’t thinking about the hundreds of devices that would one day be wondering on and off home networks. For things like that, we need to be thinking about authentication and ways to offer them permissions. A system that can grant varied levels of access and permissions to people and their devices via different passwords makes sense.

So far Eero doesn’t have something I consider pretty basic, which is the ability to see what my kids are doing online and control device access such as turning off my daughter’s tablet or phone after a certain time, but Weaver said that is coming. I admit, I’m excited to see how simple these guys can make Wi-Fi networks for the end user, while making sure some of the more complex tasks that are happening on today’s home networks still get managed in ways that the homeowner can control if they want and ignore if they don’t.