2014-05-27

Co.Labs

Six Small App Companies Doing Huge Things With Bluetooth LE

Recent implementations show how low-energy Bluetooth has just started to reach its true potential.



Bluetooth LE (low energy) isn’t new, but the technology is only just now hitting its stride. Some of the most impressive implementations are the simplest--the latest example being Notifyr, which sends iOS notifications to a Mac. It’s a simple concept, but because of how seamlessly it kills the little annoyances, its impact belies its function.

Apple devices have a healthy supply of Bluetooth accessories and apps in part because of how many older Apple devices can still support the latest Bluetooth 4.0 spec. Apple has also been active in developing its Bluetooth framework for iOS, with services like ANCS (Apple Notification Center Service), released with iOS 7.

“ANCS is pretty basic, as it only notifies you when a notification is added, or when one is read,” says Notifyr developer Joost Van Dijk. “It doesn’t provide any reply functionality, which is why I can’t let users reply to their WhatsApp messages, for example. Once Apple adds new functionality to the protocol, I’ll be sure to take a look at it, and to see if it might be worth integrating it into Notifyr.” (The Pebble smartwatch also has ANCS to thank for easily enabling notifications from all apps turned on in notification center.)

Installing the paid Notifyr iOS app on your phone is the first step, then add a free system preference on your Mac and you're done. Of course, Notifyr isn’t the only one to use the low-energy tech to dazzle users with timesaving tricks. Knock is great example of the wildly creative uses Bluetooth LE has enabled. The iOS app, once set up, allows users with a Mac to simply tap twice on the phone’s screen to securely log in to the password-protected computer.

The implementation of something like Knock is a lot more complicated than Notifyr, but the effects are the same. Even though Knock may initially seem like a party trick, it’s actually part of a bigger plan the founders have to kill all passwords.

Authy is a two-factor authentication service which is using Bluetooth to take the hassle out of security. With two-factor authentication, the issue becomes having to constantly get new a new key and type those numbers in all the time. Authy can use Bluetooth to send that information to your computer allowing you to be able to click, copy, and paste.

There’s also apps like Scribe which take the sting out of getting links, files, or other information from your computer to your phone--without sending emails to yourself.

"Bluetooth 4.0 allowed us to very quickly connect and disconnect devices and have transfers work without Wi-Fi. A similar app could have been built using Wi-Fi, but definitely not Scribe," says Scribe tech lead Taylan Pince.

Pince also adds, "Apple's iOS and OSX SDKs for using Bluetooth LE tech are really well designed and reliable. We found it really easy to integrate Mac and iOS devices when developing Scribe. There were a few unexpected bugs and the obvious hardware problems that crop up when building any alternative networking app, but overall it was so much easier than what we expected."

There are plenty of alternatives for getting contact info, snippets of text, or directions over to your phone from your computer, but Scribe is by far the easiest. With a hotkey combination the data is transferred over Bluetooth LE and is automatically copied to your iPhone’s clipboard. Just open whichever app you needed the information in and hit paste.

On the music side, Apollo enables the transfer of MIDI controls over the low-energy spec. It can be used from iPhone to iPad or from mobile device to Mac, using one device as a controller for the other. This type of functionally has been prohibitively costly in the past because you needed dedicated controllers or other specialty equipment. Now, it’s wireless, just as effective, and easy on the battery.

Although most of these Bluetooth 4.0 connections have been to computers, Automatic uses it to connect to your car. Automatic’s Link device tracks your car’s data, monitoring information like hard breaks, speed, and where you parked. The Link connects to phones over Bluetooth and uses the mobile data rather than having to be directly connected itself--part of the reason for the reasonable onetime cost. Automatic has backed away from solely supporting the 4.0 standard, however.

"Automatic supports both standards and can silently switch between them as needed," says cofounder Thejo Kote. "On Android, we use classic Bluetooth because it’s much more widespread, while on iOS the best choice was Bluetooth 4.0 because it’s lower power and allows us to support emerging technologies like Apple’s iBeacon."

Apple's iBeacon is still getting its feet wet, but it may turn out to be the biggest reason Apple has invested so heavily in Bluetooth and making sure any many devices as possible support the 4.0, low energy standard.

[Image: Flickr user thebarrowboy]




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