What About Bluetooth

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Several people have pointed out that I have been remiss in not mentioning the role Bluetooth has been playing in the convergence of digital signage and mobility. Well, I’ve not been totally remiss because I did do a post on the topic a couple of months ago. In fact, I pointed out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the technology based upon a Bluetooth convergent implementation that I had recently seen. So rather than just redirect you to that post, please allow me to review and elaborate on the subject.

First of all, for those of you not familiar with Bluetooth, it is a short range wireless technology that in its current implementation supports data transfer speeds between 2 – 3 megabits. Bluetooth was originally conceived as a replacement for data cables (RS232) and now forms the basis for what is known as a Personal Area Network or PAN. PAN’s are used for wireless communications within 10 meters and can be found in everything from PC mice and keyboards to cordless telephones. (Note: Depending on the power of the transceiver, Bluetooth can communicate from 1 up to 100 meters.)

There are a number of companies that are using Bluetooth as a wireless airlink to communicate digital signage-related content to Bluetooth-enable mobile devices (e.g. cell phones). Most are using Bluetooth as a way to augment content shown on a digital sign with something that is designed to enhance the viewing experience. This “something” may be additional visual content (graphics, pictures, videos, text, etc.), a game, a ringtone, etc.

The typical Bluetooth-enabled convergent implementation involves a centrally administered system that communicates content via the Internet to “edge servers” located near the digital sign. These edge servers generally host the programming logic for receiving content from the centrally administered system and then subsequently managing the delivery of the content to the mobile device. The edge servers also house the content and Bluetooth transceiver.

The process for communicating content to the mobile device is fairly straight forward. The Bluetooth transceiver on the edge server is constantly polling (i.e. sending out a signal) looking for other Bluetooth devices (i.e. Bluetooth-enable cell phones) with which it can connect. When it sees one, it immediate establishes a connection to that device. The programming logic in the server then says to the phone “I want to send you a file.” The security features of the Bluetooth receiver within the cell phone prompts the cell phone user to either accept or reject the file. If the file is accepted, then the file is transmitted from the edge server to the mobile device and then made available to the cell phone user.

All in all, Bluetooth is a fantastic technology and very good for facilitating communications between a mobile content server and a mobile device. So one has to ask the question: “Why is Bluetooth-enabled convergent signage not deployed everywhere?” The answer is multifaceted.

First, one must have a Bluetooth-enabled phone. Since nearly every cell phone sold today is Bluetooth-enabled, this is not the problem it was several years ago. However, there are still phones in use that are not Bluetooth enabled, which limits the community of potential viewers.

Second, the cell-phone must be “discoverable.” This means that the Bluetooth transceiver in the cell phone must be configured to allow a connection with another Bluetooth device, e.g. the edge server. This is a bit of a problem as most cell phones, for security reasons, are shipped as “non-discoverable.” In order to make the device “discoverable,” the cell phone user must activate this setting within their phone’s configuration menu. Since most cell phone users do not understand what being “discoverable” means, they typically leave it turned off. If the phone is non-discoverable, then the Bluetooth-enabled edge server cannot communicate with the phone.

Third, the cell phone’s operating system in conjunction with the Bluetooth API must be configured to allow file transfers. Since many wireless carriers have required the cell phone manufacturers to disable the file transfer feature, Bluetooth file transfers have not been a viable option for many cell phones. One may ask: “Why would a carrier intentionally block Bluetooth file transfers?” Simply stated: Economics. The carriers want their subscribers to send files over their networks so they can charge the subscriber for the privilege. This however is becoming less of an issue as the carriers are moving to flat-rate data plans (one fee for all the data you can transmit). As they move to flat-rate plans, they’re opening up Bluetooth file transfers. The carriers are now wanting their subscribers to get as much stuff off their networks as possible.

Fourth, Security. Many users have chosen not to accept Bluetooth file transfers for fear of receiving a virus. In fact, Bluetooth transported viruses are said to be excessive in countries outside the US where Bluetooth is more commonly used.

Fifth, Costs. Although the great majority of cell phones now have Bluetooth, the form factors (i.e. shapes, sizes, functions, screen resolutions, etc.) of those Bluetooth-enabled cell phones vary tremendously. Content must therefore be “repurposed” to accommodate the various form factors. This means that content designed to fit the screen attributes of the iPhone (assuming that the iPhone supported Bluetooth file transfers) would not look good on the screen of the Motorola Razor. In essence, content needs to be modified to fit, run and look good on each phone. This is a time consuming and expensive endeavor and not within the budget of many companies that would desire a signage/mobile convergent solution. For this reason, most Bluetooth-enabled convergent solutions have been relegated to specific projects funded by big brands that can afford a large media budget.

So in summary, Bluetooth-enabled convergent signage is here, is working and is able to fit a particular purpose. It does however have its limitations. I believe future implementations of convergent signage, like the one we did at Symon, represents the future of convergent signage.

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