Bluetooth 5 could unleash the audio accessory market



Since Apple announced that it is removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, launched earlier this month, many industry watchers have expressed concern, but there are plenty of precedents for similar industry disruption, argues Paul Williamson, general manager of ARM’s wireless business unit.

Caroline Hayes, Senior Editor, asks him what the new Bluetooth low energy standard could mean for consumers and the evolution of design.

Caroline Hayes: What is included in the Bluetooth 5 standard?

Paul Williamson: The latest Bluetooth® low energy (Bluetooth 5) standard introduces an increased data rate of 2-Mbit per sec. This data rate could allow enhanced quality audio experiences to be delivered with the same ultra low-power envelope that Bluetooth low energy introduced.

Caroline Hayes: How has the introduction of wireless technology changed consumer expectations?

Paul Williamson: In 2012 Apple introduced the lightning connector ending almost a decade of the 30-pin connector, and an entire line of audio accessories became obsolete over the coming year. Jawbone captured this moment and rode the market disruption to deliver consumers a new product and experience in audio, the Jambox wireless Bluetooth speaker.

Caroline Hayes: A phone without a headphone jack is unthinkable – how does Bluetooth 5 make it palatable?

Paul Williamson: The demise of the headphone jack, possibly as a result of the introduction of the iPhone 7/iPhone 7 Plus, could herald opportunities for the industry. In the short term it is clear that user adoption of wireless headphones will rise. A range of existing Bluetooth products are ready to serve this initial demand, but just as the Jambox fired the starting gun on innovation in wireless speaker design, we can expect similar innovations in wireless headphones.

The announcement may kick-start the industry to deliver smaller, in-ear wearables that can provide the ability to have truly wireless audio. In a few years, we are less likely to be talking about the form of the product, and more likely to be looking at the functionality. As the recently announced collaboration between Bragi and IBM shows, the future of the earbud is likely to be about new user experiences. By combining Bragi’s The Dash smart earphones with IBM’s Watson IoT platform, the collaboration hopes to deliver hearable technologies, using Watson’s language translation and speech-to-text capabilities for users to receive instructions and interact with colleagues, as well as to track location and environments of workers. Similar to the film Her, where a writer develops a relationship with a personal assistant OS, the in-ear personal assistant may be the next development that begins with the removal of a decades-old, physical connector.

Caroline Hayes: Is this science-fiction from the film world, or is it soon to be reality?

Paul Williamson: Truly wireless earbuds are likely to hit the mainstream. Following innovations by Bragi with The Dash, wireless stereo earbuds are becoming more popular with consumers. Long-standing brands, such as Samsung and Jabra have introduced their own take on the format.

Caroline Hayes: Can developers begin implementing Bluetooth 5 straight away?

Paul Williamson: As with most battery-powered accessories, we should expect to see smaller, energy-efficient form factors appear in the hearing aid and headphone markets in the future. The Bluetooth 5 enhancements could help to achieve even longer active use and standby time for the user, enabling devices to be worn with constant connection to a smartphone, for listening to music/audio, or collecting a range of sensor data, such as heart rate measurements.

Figure 1: Support is already in place for Bluetooth 5, with IP and RF-to-stack solutions.

Figure 1: Support is already in place for Bluetooth 5, with IP and RF-to-stack solutions.

To be able to deliver longer listening time and smaller products, semiconductor companies will need to respond with greater integration in the SoC. ARM® offers RF-to-stack solutions, all in-house. It is ready to support semiconductor partners with drop-in, silicon-proven, Bluetooth low energy IP with ARM’s sub-1 Volt Cordio radio IP.

The ARM® Cordio® IP can support the enhancements to the Bluetooth standard, as demonstrated at Bluetooth World 2016 and DAC 2016.

This is a key component in delivering further highly integrated, in-ear, Bluetooth low energy wireless ear bud design, and is ideally combined with the µA/MHz power and area optimized Cortex-M4 processor.

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