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September 2001
Vol. 10, No. 09,
pp 15–16, 18.
Computers in Chemistry
Bluetooth’s saga

The wireless technology named for a Viking may soon conquer the realm of connectivity.

opening artImagine walking into the lab and discovering that all the cables are gone, but everything is working just fine. Or how about having a set of distributed instruments, which beam their collective results wirelessly to a single desktop PC for analysis and evaluation? Or maybe you could use your cell phone to call the lab to check the progress of some analysis. Bluetooth is the enabling technology that may make these things possible.

Bluetooth technology introduces a new standard in wireless data communications. Bluetooth is a protocol for requesting, transmitting, and receiving wireless data over short distances between devices. It lets wireless devices, such as cell phones, PCs, handheld computers, and laboratory instruments, communicate with each other at speeds of about 700 Kbps and at distances of about 10 m.

Bluetooth is radio frequency (RF) based and resembles a technology called WAP (Wide Application Protocol). WAP is a cell phone-type communication, providing long distance connections designed primarily for communication between people rather than electronic devices. If WAP is like the cell phone, Bluetooth could be considered the remote control, letting electronic devices communicate over short distances.

Who Was Bluetooth?
The Swedish wireless company, Ericsson, was the inventor of Bluetooth. The name does not refer to a sad dentist, a hound dog, or a bearded pirate. It belonged instead to a 10th-century Viking king, Harald Bluetooth, who lived in Denmark in 910–986 AD and was the son of Gorm the Old and Thyra. The name Bluetooth, or “Blåtand” in the old Viking language, had nothing to do with a blue tooth. It means “dark complexion”—Harald had very dark hair, which was unusual for Vikings. Another story suggests that Harald liked eating blueberries, so his teeth became stained with the blue color, hence the name. This second story sounds less plausible but more romantic.

King Harald Bluetooth was famous for uniting the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway. Likewise, the Bluetooth technology standards were developed by a consortium of companies (rather than kingdoms), including Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Intel, Toshiba, and approximately 2000 others.

What Is Bluetooth?
Bluetooth provides wireless data transfer with a greater range than infrared (IR) and more bandwidth than many RF systems, and it can penetrate walls. Unlike wireless technologies that it will replace, the Bluetooth protocol has been created as a standard—agreed to by thousands of companies and accepted worldwide. In contrast to other communications standards, which can be proprietary, licensed, and costly, Bluetooth is open-standard, meaning that it is royalty-free and can be used by anyone. The expected user base is on the order of 1.5 billion devices by 2005, with a market of $5 billion in sales.

Wireless manufacturers have been developing new devices with Bluetooth capabilities. Manufacturers are betting that cell-phone-savvy Europeans and Asians will jump at the chance to connect their cell phones to cars, cameras, camcorders, and Coke machines. European GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) handsets and other cell phones have been among the first Bluetooth offerings. Because cell phones are basically radios, they already have most of the electronics needed and can add Bluetooth at a relatively low cost.

When Bluetooth takes off, it will spread as pervasively as microchips to cars, computers, clocks, toasters, stereos, TVs, cell phones, and so on. By coupling Bluetooth with WAP, users will be able to access devices or information remotely from the beach, from the bar, from Brazil, or perhaps even from Borneo.

Bluetooth Networks
Bluetooth provides three types of networks: Personal Area Networks (PANs), piconets, and scatternets. The PAN lets a mobile employee connect to a variety of wireless devices. A PAN can consist of several portable devices such as a personal digital assistant (PDA), a headset, a cell phone, and a laptop. For example, if you wanted to go buy a widget from a store, you could first search the Web on your laptop and then download the results into a spreadsheet. You could then transfer the spreadsheet to a PDA so that you could look at what store was cheapest and closest while on your couch. Once you found the right store, you could send the address from your laptop to your car’s Bluetooth-enabled navigation system, which would tell you how to get there.

A piconet allows a group of peer-level Bluetooth devices, such as laptops or PDAs, to link together in a temporary network. For example, employees attempting to hold an impromptu meeting in a conference room may all have laptops but be unable to interconnect. If Bluetooth becomes an everyday reality, these same employees would be able to establish an ad hoc piconet, allowing everyone to connect and interoperate. After the meeting, the piconet would simply disappear. A scatternet is a collection of interacting piconets.

Bluetooth is not a wireless local area network. It is a method for carrying out short-term data transactions, not for maintaining continuous data and information flow. So it should be perfect for the intermittent data transfer that is characteristic of laboratory instruments.

No Checkout
At the moment, a Bluetooth chip costs around $50. As the demand grows, prices should drop, presumably to around $5 per chip. Then watch out! At $5 per chip, the technology will appear everywhere. One engineer joked that with such cheap Bluetooth chips, every electric device from the toaster and the doorbell to the telephone, television, and refrigerator would be Bluetooth-enabled. Unfortunately, if you had a power outage, you might have to reboot your house.

The first step for Bluetooth would be to simply replace and eliminate cables. For example, installing a Bluetooth card in your PC will allow you to discard the cables leading to your keyboard; mouse; speakers; and eventually, even your monitor. Functioning at the next level, Bluetooth could synchronize your peripheral communications. Your computer could then talk to your printer, and your Palm Pilot could talk to your computer or printer as long as they were within a 10-m radius of one another.

Bluetooth could enable water, gas, electric, or other meters to send readings to the utility offices through signals to a device on your phone line, reducing the need for meter readers. Toll booths and gas pumps could be set up to communicate with a user’s cell phone, provide the appropriate products or services, and apply the charges to the cell phone bill.

Bluetooth-enabled devices need proximity to communicate, but not direct contact. For example, a Bluetooth-enabled credit card might allow shoppers to collect their Bluetooth-labeled groceries from the shelf and then take them directly to their cars without a long wait at the checkout. An electronic checkout gateway could inventory the selected groceries, charge the credit card for them, and record the transaction.

Imagine a teenager in the school hallway with a small handheld device similar to a GameBoy or a Palm Pilot. A message pops up: “Meet me in our favorite place,” accompanied by a stylized smiley face. He presses “OK” and his device sends a low-power, short-range radio signal back to his girlfriend’s cell phone. Although the devices are made by different manufacturers, they can communicate transparently because they both use the Bluetooth Protocol.

Business Bluetooth
Bluetooth is not just for consumer goods. In business, for example, sensors and spectrometers can be fitted with Bluetooth cards or adapters to send data without using wires to a central desktop computer for analysis. In addition, data collection devices, such as PDAs, handheld input devices, and bar-code scanners, can be adapted to use Bluetooth for wireless data transmission. A variety of companies are working to develop these capabilities.

Widespread use of PDAs, such as the Palm Pilot, and their IR communications could speed the adaptation of Bluetooth as a more robust replacement for infrared. Physicians are already adapting PDAs for their own use. In Charlotte, NC, pulmonologists are experimenting with handheld devices equipped with software for scheduling and billing functions. In Chapel Hill, NC, doctors store notes and medical references on their Palm Pilots and then beam the information to colleagues, rather than rushing to transcribe or photocopy the information.

Bluetooth Lab
Although cell phones, consumer electronics, and grocery shopping may benefit from Bluetooth, laboratories may also benefit from this wireless communications standard. What might a laboratory of the Bluetooth-enabled future look like?

Except for power, all the cables would be gone, leaving only one large, flat control panel. Although lab workers could make individual changes by using their personal handheld devices, all the controls, data collecting, combination, analysis, and reporting would be controlled from a single computer. Because of Bluetooth, the computer processor could be placed anywhere—even outside the lab—as long as it stayed within a 10-m radius of the devices that it controlled. The flat panel control device could also be placed anywhere, and it could even be picked up and moved around without fear of disconnecting a cable or losing contact with an instrument.

Bluetooth could enhance efficiency and cost-effectiveness by facilitating centralized control of all the lab’s instruments. Equipment manufacturers might provide less expensive equipment by replacing their instrument control panels with a virtual control panel. Each instrument could be connected to a different icon, which the lab worker would tap to activate.

Using Bluetooth’s current piconet configuration, a computer can actively link with the control panel and six active instruments. It can link with about 250 instruments in stand-by mode, or it can also link to combinations of active and stand-by instruments.

While Bluetooth may not be a panacea, it does offer real-world potential for short-distance wireless communication. It could eliminate wires and incompatible connectors and enable components to recognize each other. Successful implementations in the wireless industry could lead PC and consumer electronics vendors to implement the Bluetooth technology. Security and interoperability issues, as well as possible interference problems, must still be resolved. The telecommunication industry’s cooperation and strong backing give Bluetooth significant momentum for conquering the wireless networking market.

Hank Simon has been working with artificial intelligence and knowledge discovery, in various forms, for the past 22 years. He is currently consulting and writing about XML, WAP, and Bluetooth Web technologies. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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