A global provider of secure, intelligent wireless technology for a more connected world, Silicon Labs delivers innovative solutions for industrial, commercial, home, and life applications with energy-friendly integrated hardware, intuitive development tools, and ecosystem support. 

This month, I had a chance to coordinate with Parker Dorris, Silicon Labs staff product manager for Bluetooth® technology, about what Bluetooth trends they expect to see in 2024.

Q&A With Parker Dorris From Silicon Labs

Which Bluetooth technology trends from 2023 most stick out to you, and what impacts did they have on the market?

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Every year, we see an interplay between organic market trends and alignment of effort based on Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) standardization. Each lifts the other to expand markets and improve the end-user experience through interoperability and reliability. For Silicon Labs, one of the key examples of this kind of interplay we saw take off in 2023 is Bluetooth Electronic Shelf Labels (ESL) – propelled by standardized features in version 5.4 of the Bluetooth Core Specification, such as periodic advertisements with responses (PAWR). ESL is a space that’s been steadily growing for years, and now that there’s a standardized underpinning of the wireless communication adopted by the Bluetooth SIG, we’re seeing this space rapidly expand. 

ESL is a particularly interesting example of the expansion of Bluetooth® reach in users’ lives, because its presence in ESL is essentially invisible to the end customer. Through all our hard work in defining the spec, developing hardware and enablement supporting the spec, and bringing our customers to market, the end result is a better shopping experience that the user doesn’t even perceive as being enabled by Bluetooth technology.

The promise of these new Bluetooth® features, particularly Auracast™ broadcast audio, is hard to underestimate.

In contrast, the transformative experiences enabled by Auracast™ broadcast audio and Bluetooth LE Audio trends in 2023 are highly visible to end users. While we’re still in the early days of Auracast™ broadcast audio and market trends indicate a steady but not immediate adoption of Bluetooth LE Audio as users move to LE Audio compatible accessories in years to come, the promise of these new Bluetooth features, particularly Auracast™ broadcast audio, is hard to underestimate.

Finally, the Bluetooth mesh enhancements, adopted alongside Bluetooth Network Lighting Control (NLC) profiles, focus and refine use cases for Bluetooth Mesh, targeting commercial lighting where this mesh technology is uniquely well suited. Similar to ESL, this is a space that’s been around for many years where market adoption will be buoyed by the lift of Bluetooth standardization.

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If you could use three words to describe Bluetooth technology, what would they be?

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Ubiquitous: The movie Jurassic Park has a line that goes, “Life finds a way.”  I would say that Bluetooth® finds a way too. Bluetooth technology evolves, enveloping existing use cases with standardization and broadening reach through unlocking new use cases. In terms of versatility of function, pervasiveness of use, and diversity of data transmitted across 2.4 GHz, nothing comes close to what Bluetooth technology does. 

Essential: Falling back on another paraphrase, “if we didn’t have Bluetooth, it would be necessary to invent it.” Bluetooth technology is a widespread protocol because it serves essential purposes. Think about all the cases where Bluetooth technology isn’t even the primary wireless protocol – in those cases, you need something to set up the network, to commission a device, and to interface with a phone. Bluetooth technology fills those functional gaps in a way that’s intuitive, straightforward, and reliably supported with years of standards-driven interoperability and reliability.

I’m hard pressed to think of a different wireless protocol that provides more help and support toward enabling such a broad array of use cases that permeate our lives than Bluetooth® technology.

In that respect, it’s essential. But I use essential in another, more personal use of the word as well. Particularly in personal health, Bluetooth technology has become an essential part of living a healthy life for millions of people. In my own family, Bluetooth technology has dramatically improved the quality of life and health of those with Type 1 diabetes through its interface with both CGMs and insulin pumps. For that reason, I take special pride in working at a company, like Silicon Labs, that plays a small but critical role in enabling these use cases.

Helpful: The goal of all the work a semiconductor company like Silicon Labs puts into product development, and all the work our customers and partners put into bringing end products to market, is to make some service, product, or activity work better than it worked before. In ways that might be big or small, we strive to make end customer’s lives more efficient, healthier, or hassle free…or even more delightful; in short, to help. To that end, I’m hard pressed to think of a different wireless protocol that provides more help and support toward enabling such a broad array of use cases that permeate our lives than Bluetooth technology.

What new Bluetooth trends do you anticipate seeing in 2024?

2024 will be an exciting time for Bluetooth® technology, driven in large part by the adoption of high-accuracy distance measurement. High-accuracy distance measurement promises to complement AoX to raise the profile of Bluetooth Location Services to a leading player in this space. One of the reasons I’m so excited about the addition of high-accuracy distance measurement is the diversity of use cases where we’re finding interest among our customers. Whether it’s passive entry applications, an HMI security enhancement, or a device-to-device ranging feature, high-accuracy distance measurement seems to be a sweet spot, balancing accuracy, security, design complexity, and cost. In my time as a product manager, I’ve never seen a Bluetooth feature that has this reach across so many market segments. Customers are getting creative with this feature, viewing it as a critical value add for upgrades to existing products as well as unlocking new applications in location awareness and user experiences.

Another trend we see is the accelerated adoption of Bluetooth® technology in personal health devices.

Another trend we see is the accelerated adoption of Bluetooth technology in personal health devices, such as continuous blood glucose monitors (CGM), insulin pumps, and other products. Again, the migration to Bluetooth technology in this space has been ongoing for years, but the ramp is rapidly accelerating. So many of these devices use smartphones for human interface, making Bluetooth technology an ideal wireless technology. Security is critically important for these use cases, and we see Bluetooth technology stepping up to the challenge with new features such as the Authentication Control Service (ACS) and Certificate Based Provisioning and Authentication (CBAP) to ensure privacy of medical information and minimized potential for hacks.

What was your customers’ biggest demand in 2023?

One big story for us in 2023 is in personal health, with announced partnerships in 2023 that are the result of years of development on hardware, software, and ecosystem management. ESL is another important business for us, and 2023 was a year where we saw skyrocketing demand for Bluetooth® enabled communication in that space. Finally, we continue to see demand for Bluetooth technology as a commissioning protocol in nearly every multiprotocol use case. Silicon Labs is a pure-play IOT company, and Bluetooth technology is an essential part of applications even when it’s not the center of focus. 

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What Bluetooth innovations has Silicon Labs focused on 2023, and what will you focus on for 2024?

Bringing the latest Bluetooth® Core Specification features to market was a primary Bluetooth focus for us in 2023, driven by spec adoption and overwhelming customer demand, primarily but not limited to ESL applications. We also helped to lead the charge toward Bluetooth Mesh enhancements, supporting newly defined features as well as Bluetooth Networked Lighting Control (NLC) profiles.

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As with the development of any technology, much of our time during the year is spent preparing for what comes next. In 2023, our internal development focused on ensuring that we are ready to offer a leading high-accuracy distance measurement solution in 2024. In tech talks and other events, we’ve given the public a preview of our capabilities in this space, and we look forward to bringing this solution to market in 2024.

We believe that 2024 will be a year of renewed focus on Bluetooth® Location Services because of high-accuracy distance measurement. High-accuracy distance measurement presents a substantial improvement on RSSI-based distance estimation, so much so that it promises to unlock use cases that could only have modest market success with the limitations of RSSI-based ranging. This will change the game for so many products that it promises to have a transformative impact on the way we interact with the technology around us. The critical reason why this will be so transformative is that Bluetooth technology is already ubiquitous, it’s already designed into products, and so the addition of location awareness is a relatively light lift. No additional chip is required, and no extra board space is needed.

Another transformation we’re anticipating in 2024 is the serious inclusion of Bluetooth technology in the energy harvesting space. Riding a megatrend toward ultra low power and battery-less operation in a multitude of use cases, suppliers like Silicon Labs will be ready to offer differentiated solutions for substantial power reduction without sacrificing key features that have made Bluetooth technology such a versatile and ubiquitous innovation.

What comes to mind as you reflect on the last 25 years of Bluetooth technology, and what do you predict for the next 25 years?

In a lot of ways, the next 25 years will look like the last 25. The Bluetooth® technology standard evolved to where it is today through the interplay between market needs and standardization, one step at a time. Even from the earliest days of Bluetooth technology, designers were targeting what are still the four top-level Bluetooth application segments: data transfer, location services, device networks, and audio streaming

I think that we’ll see Bluetooth technology continue to evolve in those four application segments – of course, with additional features, higher throughput, and operation across higher bands of the spectrum. These are all things we can see on the horizon today through specs in development. Alongside all those standardization efforts, we’ll continue to see suppliers like Silicon Labs push the envelope of efficiency, power management, and computation. Beyond the horizon of all those new features and functions is where it gets particularly interesting. I can’t wait to see what our customers come up with, and I look forward to enabling their products with Silicon Labs hardware and enablement.

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