Ultra low power (ULP) RF specialist Nordic Semiconductor announces that beacon specialist, Estimote, has specified Nordic's multiple award-winning nRF51822 SoCs to provide the Bluetooth® Smart (formerly known as Bluetooth low energy) wireless connectivity in its newly launched Estimote Stickers that Estimote says herald the arrival of a brand new 'nearables' beacon product category.
Estimote Stickers are small (approximately 3mm thin), low cost (sub-$10) ready-made beacons with built-in accelerometers and temperature sensors (that build on Estimote's previously launched Beacons which also employ Nordic Semiconductor wireless technology) designed to be stuck on everyday nearby objects that Estimote calls 'nearables'. Estimote Stickers can then be used to provide microlocation and contextual data about nearables to any Bluetooth Smart Ready device. This allows developers via Estimote's accompanying SDK (Software Development Kit) to build new types of context-aware apps and help drive growth in the wider 'Internet of Things' trend.
"Imagine walking down a busy city street," explains Steve Cheney, Estimote Co-Founder and Senior VP of Business. "As you walk your eyes and brain cognitively process the equivalent of terabytes of information about the world around to you to give you context and to help you navigate [e.g. there's a slow moving cyclist about three meters away travelling towards me; there's a lady walking ahead of me wearing a pink sweater, skinny jeans and suede shoes; there's a deli on my left where I might get my lunch; at the next road junction I am approaching the pedestrian crossing sign currently says 'Don't Walk', etc.]."
Cheney continues: "But if you were to close your eyes, you can only walk a few steps before your brain loses its context and effectively forces you to stop because you no longer feel confident you know enough about where you are or where you are going.
"That's the world your smartphone currently lives in everyday. It's a powerful computer but it's mostly 'blind' to the world, people, and objects around it and our mission is to give smartphones the ability to recognize their immediate surroundings and so enable a whole class of apps that can be built on top of the physical world."
Estimote did all the design work in-house in partnership with Nordic Semiconductor to achieve the required sticker-sized level of integration required without sacrificing operational reliability or battery life (one year under typical usage conditions).
"One of the challenges of producing sticker beacons around 3mm thin was finding a balance between its flexibility, required from the product perspective, and stiffness, required to keep the PCB [Printed Circuit Board] and components intact during regular use," explains Cheney. "Having 10 slightly different shapes of beacons, which along with color varieties we felt were important to evoke the personalization inherent in nearables, made things even more complex and required a number of iterations to optimize the PCB layout. As a company that controls all aspects of the industrial design and manufacturing process we obsess about these details, even testing dozens of different silicon types and molds until we find the perfect fit."
"In terms of the inner workings of the Sticker Beacons," explains Co-Founder and CTO Lukasz Kostka, "it was super important for Nordic's nRF51822 SoC to have a 32-bit ARM Cortex M0 microprocessor and 256 kB of Flash memory on-board to enable both us and our customers to run pretty much any application they require from the Nordic SoC. Occasionally we get a custom firmware request from an important partner and we're confident that the Nordic chip gives us the headroom we need as our software evolves".
Kostka continued: "What really helped to kick-start the development was a reference antenna design provided by Nordic. It was a great starting point that allowed us to focus on testing and optimizing different configurations in a constrained space. From the beginning of our work with the nRF51 chip we also took advantage of Nordic's rich SDK that can be used side-by-side with our custom low-level code in interacting directly with the radio. It was especially useful when further minimizing the already very low energy consumption and allowed us to bring to market smart 'Power Modes' which were critical for Estimote Stickers as they are so small. This level of flexibility is also really helpful when working on inter-beacon communication.
"There are other features such as Programmable Peripheral Interconnect [PPI] that can be used out of the box to make life easier for our developers. In the case of PPI it allowed us to easily and effectively measure, and later optimize, battery life. Also, having a powerful ARM processor with abundant memory was crucial for us while developing industry-standard security for beacons and the whole platform. Being able to efficiently compute complex hash functions and store pre-cached seed data allowed us to focus on the main challenge-security-rather than implementation details."
"Beacons target the billions of non-connected objects and devices we use everyday and to make them more intelligent, controllable, and ultimately easy and relevant to use," comments Geir Langeland, Nordic Semiconductor's Director of Sales & Marketing. "In many ways the beacon technology market today is exhibiting parallels to the GPS market was 10 years ago. And it's not difficult to image a world where the ability to interact intelligently with everyday nearby objects becomes as standardized and ubiquitous as GPS and location-based services are today."
Estimote Stickers are available to pre-order now from the Estimote website and a pack of 10 is expected to retail initially for around $99. Estimote Stickers work with Estimote's existing Beacon SDK, which Estimote says is in use by over 25,000 developers worldwide, and Estimote states that it has already signed up major industry partners to work with its new Sticker hardware, including Cisco.