As Bluetooth slowly inches its way into the market, a video-game-controller startup is taking aim at the emerging wireless standard. Meanwhile, how Bluetooth will evolve remains an open question.
Eleven Engineering Inc., a Canadian startup, has already been signed by Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc. to develop an ASIC for Microsofts Xbox console based upon Elevens SPIKE protocol, a 1-Mbit wireless connection that the company says is cheaper and simpler to implement than Bluetooth. After its rollout in early 2002, Eleven will court PDA and other manufacturers to move SPIKE into the mainstream.
Bluetooth, meanwhile, is slowly becoming more accepted. Over 100 new products were qualified during the third quarter, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. However, as many have noted, the SIG simply tests components against the specification, not against other devices. Bluetooth transmits data over the 2.4-GHz band, the same as the 802.11 wireless LAN protocol, some cordless phones, and microwave ovens. Frequency-hopping algorithms have been able to counter some of the interference, however.
Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., also indicated that Bluetooth support would be integrated into its Windows XP operating system next year. However, Microsoft chose to develop its own software stack, and will favor the PAN (Personal Area Network) protocol, which rankled some observers at a Bluetooth conference in San Francisco this past week. But Microsoft, which purchased booth space, had pulled out of the show by Tuesday for unknown reasons.
"I would say that Bluetooth is in a stage of adolescence," said Scott Bibaud, director of marketing for the RF and Advanced Mixed Signal Business Unit of Broadcom Corp., El Segundo, Calif. "Basically in Bluetooth, from our perspective, only the interoperability issue remains unresolved."
However, Eleven, based in Edmonton, Canada, feels that the time is ripe for its solution to sneak into the wireless market. "Our priority is to keep this a low-cost solution, and eliminate Bluetooths mistakes," said Lee Kruszewski, manager of the Xinc architecture, the name of Elevens chip that runs the SPIKE protocol.
Like Bluetooth, SPIKE transfers information at about a megabit per second. The device also runs the risk of interference; it transmits over the 900-MHz frequency band, although a 2.4-GHz protocol is being developed for the European market.
Part of the SPIKE technology is Elevens ability to dodge interference by frequency hopping. According to a spokesman, the technology doesnt jump from frequency to frequency in real time. However, he noted that a user wont notice a change in frequency, but he will pay attention if data is lost. Eleven employs five separate error-correcting mechanisms, he said.
"Remember, were designing for the video game market," the spokesman said. "Its one thing if your modem or PDA requests that a packet be sent again. But if youre driving a car in a video game, thats the difference between you ending up hitting the wall."
Eleven designed the SPIKE-compliant transceivers to work up to 100 feet away from another device. Eleven signed a deal in May to work with Thomson Consumer Electronics to bring the technology to Microsofts Xbox game console early next year, and a TCE spokesman confirmed the project was on track. Eleven also signed a similar agreement with Unical Enterprises Inc., the manufacturer of Sylvania-branded products, in November. The console modules will allow four game controllers to be operated simultaneously, the spokesman said.
Kruszewski said the company is working on higher-data rate products, but is evaluating the tradeoffs between data rates and low cost. The Xinc chip has taped out, and an estimated price will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $10, roughly equivalent to the current cost for Bluetooth.
Meanwhile, Bluetooth proponents are considering a push to higher data rates, as well. Although reports stating that a faster version of Bluetooth was on hold circulated this past week, the chairman of the Bluetooth SIG, Simon Ellis, confirmed that a high-bandwidth version of Bluetooth is being explored.
"There is no Radio 2," Ellis said of the common name of the higher-speed protocol. "There is a high rate working group for studying the potential of higher frequencies."
However, the SIGs first priority is compatibility, both on a device-to-device basis as well as designing a specification to maintain backwards compatibility with the current Bluetooth spec.
That position was confirmed by Diego Melpignano, senior research scientist and project leader for the wireless systems and terminals group at Philips Research, Monza, Italy. Melpignano said Philips was part of what he called the "Radio 2" working group, but said interoperability of current Bluetoth radios is indeed the top priority.
"The implication is that faster performance is better," the SIGs Ellis said. "Thats not what Bluetooth is about. How fast is a cell phone? How fast can you type? Faster is not necessarily better. We have to look at the tradeoffs against what is the sweet spot."
Ellis also declined to discuss the potential data rates being discussed. However, he did say development work was being designed around the transmission of video and the data rates enabled by so-called "3G" phones. Ellis declined to specify what video codec or data rate the SIGs member companies were eying, noting that codec like MPEG-4 and Microsofts upcoming Corona allow video to be streamed using low data rates.