Short-Range Tech for the Long Term

It may not always seem like a “race” to connect the devices and systems in your home, but in reality, a number of short-range technology providers are vying for the top spot in your living room.

Wireless technologies that offer connectivity within short ranges include the widespread and well-known Wi-Fi protocol, which enables everything from gaming devices to security systems; Bluetooth Smart, which is increasingly common in connected fitness devices; ZigBee, which enables low-cost, low-power solutions ranging from building-automation systems to medical-device monitoring; and Z-Wave, which is commonly deployed in smart-home applications.

Together, these technologies are infiltrating many growing market segments, and are being faced with new opportunities to step up to the plate to win over devicemakers, solution providers and integrators, as well as consumers.

In a July 2012 report, ABI Research, www.abiresearch.com, suggested two players, Bluetooth Smart and ZigBee, will be key competitors in emerging markets that require low-power wireless connections, such as the connected home. While ABI says both technologies will experience rapid growth in 2013 and beyond, the firm predicts Bluetooth Smart-enabled devices will top 1 billion by 2016, exceeding ZigBee-enabled devices, which could reach more than 350 million by 2016.

As it stands today, Cees Links, CEO of GreenPeak, www.greenpeak.com, says the smart-home market is in its infancy. “We live in a very interesting transitional period in that we see products coming to market with built-in connectivity capability and connected to the Internet, so that people can approach them with their smartphone, essentially from any place in the world,” he says, “… but this is not the real smart home yet.”

GreenPeak is a technology company that specializes in developing and manufacturing communication chips that enable sensors and controllers in the home. Links says GreenPeak sees a potential market of 6 billion chips and the company is vying for a piece of this pie. The company is active in the ZigBee Alliance, which is working to build an open networking and communication standard that will ultimately enable the smart home.

“Wi-Fi and ZigBee are complementary open networking standards with comparable range,” Links says. “Wi-Fi is focused on ‘content’ distribution (i.e.,) photos, video, movies, Internet … (whereas) ZigBee is focused on sense and control, so actually very little data content is transmitted.” And while he believes Z-Wave is comparable to ZigBee, it is not an industry standard. In fact, Links says, “… the expectation is that Z-Wave will sooner or later disappear.”

Dan Hermansen, sales and marketing manager for RTX, www.rtx.dk, a technology integrator in the low-power wireless market, has a similar opinion. “One of the advantages of Z-wave is low interference; however, it suffers from a higher power usage than other technologies, and therefore needs to be stationary with a connected power source.” Hermansen adds, “Z-Wave also suffers from a relatively low data rate, and therefore has a limited applications space.”

Wi-Fi, on the other hand, has a high data rate, but Hermansen says it is more costly than other technologies and uses a good deal of power in its conventional form. For that reason, companies like RTX are developing a range of low-power Wi-Fi products, like the RTX4100 Low Power Wi-Fi module.

Hermansen says Z-Wave, ZigBee, low-power Wi-Fi, and ULE (ultra-low energy) wireless technologies all generally fit into the same category, serving the purposes of sensor and actuator management. While they may be considered smaller players today, these wireless technologies will become bigger players as the number of connected devices skyrockets.

RTX is working to develop ULE as a wireless technology within the DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) Forum, www.dect.org, and ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), www.etsi.org. Hermansen says the Denmark-based company donated the basic ULE protocol, a high-capacity network of wireless sensors and actuators that supports both voice and data, to these institutions in 2010.

Its goal is to further develop and ratify the protocol. While RTX also propagates product development using other protocols, including Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth, Hermansen says “the DECT ULE technology provides a better platform for launching smart homes since it carries a broader range of functionalities, incorporating all the functions from the popular DECT and adding a lower energy consumption and so forth. This enables a single technology to become the standard of this industry, which will again make integration between devices much easier. As a consequence, the user experience is significantly improved.”

User experience will indeed be key to the future of the smart home, and the short-range wireless technology that can provide the most seamless, interoperable, and reliable user experience will be leaps and bounds above the rest.

Overall, many in the space agree: billions of connected devices are in our near future, and a good chunk will be in our homes. GreenPeak’s Links suggests we’ll know when the “smart home” has arrived when devices become the eyes and ears of the home; when they are capable of making decisions without our help. This will change the way we interact with our homes, no matter which short-range technology wins the race.

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