Walking up to the massive curved OLED screens that cover the entrance to LG’s CES 2020 booth, I spot the flag of my tour guide right away. It’s Day 2 of the show, and I’ve missed a lot of the big unveilings; I’m excited to catch up on the gadgets I haven’t yet seen.

After I introduce myself, the guide hands me a wireless receiver the size of a thick credit card, connected to a lanyard and a pair of cheap analog headphones. While this is the norm for any kind of tour these days — and it’s better than the guide trying to shout at all of us — I can’t help but think the tour would be much more convenient, and would certainly sound better, if I could just tune into the tour with my own wireless earbuds.

Ironically enough, just a day earlier, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) had announced exactly that feature: Broadcast Audio, which will allow headphones and headsets to tune into specific public or private broadcasts over Bluetooth®. It’s part of the newly announced Bluetooth LE Audio, and it has the potential to change audio tours forever, letting patrons BYOH (bring your own headphones).

“We think it’s a huge game changer,” Ken Kolderup, VP of marketing for the Bluetooth SIG says. “It really introduces an entire new use case for Bluetooth. There are many applications, and we’re excited to see the innovation coming from the developer community in this area.”

Broadcast Audio will allow for both personal audio sharing — where someone with a Bluetooth device shares their stream to a group, or location audio sharing, which could upgrade audio tours like the one I went on. A venue — say, an airport — would enable the feature on its TVs that support LE Audio. Anyone interested in tuning in could connect their headphones to hear the TV.

The exact process would be up to the device developers, but the general idea is the listener would use their smartphone as an intermediary to complete the process. Once that’s done, the headphones would be able to hear audio accompanying the broadcast, and the venue could even offer multiple streams to accommodate different languages.

“You can actually optimize the audio listening experience for yourself on your own headphones,” Chris Havell, Qualcomm’s senior director of audio product marketing, explains. “So if you wanted to hear it a little louder than what I wanted to hear it, or even have some kind of adaptation of audio that you could do that.”

Sharing a Bluetooth® connection with multiple strangers might not seem like the wisest idea, but the spec keeps each stream encrypted separately, so there isn’t any more risk to your device’s security than normal device pairing. And LE Audio is more resilient to packet loss, so if your tour guide gets ahead of you, there’ll be less chance of the audio cutting out (which happened multiple times on my tour, though the interference-heavy hallways of CES are kind of an X factor). 

“The codec is more robust in how it handles loss of packets in terms of how choppy the conversation can become,” says Dr. Alfonso Carrera of Fraunhofer IIS, which developed the audio codec for LE Audio. “It also has an implication for battery life, since a codec that’s more resilient to packet loss you don’t have to send so much power.”

One consideration with Broadcast Audio in Bluetooth is discoverability: How will people even know that a stream’s available, and even if they do, how will they know what to do? Clearly, there would need to be some kind of signage that would tell patrons in a venue that a Bluetooth® broadcast is available, at least until people get used to scanning for them.

And there will be. The Bluetooth SIG is introducing branding for Audio Sharing specifically, a logo that a venue can use to signal to customers that a Bluetooth broadcast is available, even in multiple languages.

“The best analogy is probably Wi- Fi,” says Kolderup. “Right now you walk into a location and you say ‘I want to connect to Wi- Fi,’ and you scan for networks. You can expect the same type of thing: So you open the app for your earbuds or your headset, and it shows all the Bluetooth® audio broadcasts near you.”

On the Bluetooth SIG’s timeline for LE Audio, location-based implementations of Broadcast Audio are expected to come later than other features, with the first of them coming in the back half of 2021 at the earliest. It’ll probably take some time after that for it to arrive in your gym since most venues are on a fixed cycle for replacing equipment like TVs (although aftermarket solutions will likely be possible, too).

But there’s no rush: LE Audio is meant to lay a foundation for the future of wireless audio for developers and vendors to build on, and, as my experience at CES shows, Broadcast Audio has clear utility. In five years, listening to tours with your own wireless headphones might be the norm, and those awkward, cheap headsets could join corded phones on the pile of obsolescence.

Pete Pachal is a lifelong technology journalist and the Executive Editor of CoinDesk. Pete has served as the chief tech editor for several prominent media brands, including Mashable, PCMag, and the Syfy Channel, and was the Editorial Director of Reviews.com. As a thought leader in tech, Pete has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, TDAmeritrade Network, PBS Newshour, NPR, The Daily Show, Cheddar, and more. Pete holds degrees in journalism and engineering physics. His favorite Doctor Who monsters are the Cybermen.

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Building on 20 years of innovation, LE Audio will not only enhance the performance of Bluetooth audio, but will bring all its benefits to people with hearing loss. LE Audio will also introduce Audio Sharing, an innovative new Bluetooth use case with the potential to once again change the way we connect with each other and experience the world around us.

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