An Apple patent around Bluetooth LE has the tech press frothing (again) over the possibility that it’s a signal of a coming smart watch.
Apple Insider reports that the patent “proposes a method by which a device can connect to, and share a network with, a second device via low-power communications, such as Bluetooth. ”
In the simplest terms, the patent describes two devices: one, which supports broadcast signals (like your phone does), lets other devices in the vicinity know that its available. The second device would ask your phone ‘permission’ to use its signal and once the two are paired would use the connection to the Internet or network to download data.
The patent description describes the outcome of this sharing/pairing:
In this manner, users can leverage their mobile radio communication devices, such as their cell phones, to provide network access to their other devices without having to manually enable such connections. In turn, the other devices can benefit from the network access while remaining in low-power mode during a short-range connection that uses a low-power enabled connection.
But Is It A Sign of a Smart Watch?
There are lots of signs that Apple has the infrastructure in ios7 to launch wearable devices. But I’m not sure this patent is one of those signs.
While the idea of pairing and piggybacking on top of your smart phone to create a connection to the Internet is an obvious mechanic for a smart watch, this particular patent makes specific reference to ‘range’. The concept that one device (a smart watch) would create a paired connection using Bluetooth LE for short transfers of data based on range presumes that your watch probably isn’t connected that often.
If this was meant to describe an ongoing connection between your phone and your watch, I’d expect to see a patent that doesn’t trigger short bursts of content based on range, but one which creates a sort of ongoing energy-conscious connection.
Instead, throughout the patent it returns to the concept of proximity (emphasis added):
In one embodiment, the device and supporting device are paired together using a proximity profile of a short-range connection protocol in which the devices trigger a proximity notification alert when within range of each other.
In one embodiment, upon receiving the proximity notification alert the device joins the supporting device’s shared access service and briefly connects to the network
The closest hint at this patent supporting a Smart Watch lie in the third embodiment:
 In one embodiment, the short-range connectability to the supporting device is provided over a low-power enabled connection protocol such as Bluetooth. In a typical embodiment, the device is able to maintain itself in a low-power background mode while joining the supporting device’s shared access service and briefly connecting to the network. In this manner the device may perform such activities as establishing intermittent network presence for receiving push notifications and other messages or updates, or for engaging in other network-related activities while advantageously remaining in low power mode.
But the challenge of a smart watch would NOT be intermittent network presence, the challenge would be for the phone to wake the Smart Watch up when it’s ready to push data out. In that instance, what I’d expect to see in a “smart watch patent” would be a method in which it’s the phone that signals the device to wake up, rather than the device waking up because the phone is around.
So What Does the Patent Say?
There’s nothing in this patent that tips it into being even a strong hint of a coming Smart Watch. The focus on the patent is three-fold:
– How a Bluetooth LE enabled device “waits” for a device with an Internet connection to come into range
– Once in range, it creates a connection with the other device (your phone, say)
– And how it creates a brief connection in order to transfer data while conserving battery power.
Again, the challenge of a Smart Watch isn’t proximity to your phone – the challenge is to know when your phone has something to ‘say’. This patent doesn’t describe a solution to that problem.
I suppose this patent could be loosely extrapolated to describe the ongoing connection between a phone and a watch, but it feels to me more like a protocol for a new family of “slightly smart” Bluetooth LE devices that don’t require constant pairing. Right now, when we think of iBeacons, we think of things that are primarily transmitters. What this patent describes is a way in which those devices could piggyback on the network connectivity of passing devices to receive short bursts of data.
It describes a more visionary possibility than a Smart Watch: a network of ambient and aware devices in the world around us, that update their context based on the proximity of users nearby.
To me, it’s the proximity piece that counts. While this patent might be a component of a Smart Watch, it seems that its main purpose is to create temporary personal hot spots in which the world around us updates itself based on our presence….while wearable computing suggests that the devices we wear would have an ongoing ambient connection to our personal clouds.