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Out of the blue

The raft of almost daily e-inventions can lead to the rapid onset of e-fatigue. But wait: there is one technological advance which really could revolutionise construction and workplaces the world over. Indeed Bluetooth could change our lives, Arup IT dire

Technological advances are moving at such a pace that it is hard to keep up with the latest gadget or where to buy it. But the response to the proliferation of e-gimmicks can at times merely be fatigue in those only just getting used to the internet or mobile phone.

However buried in the e-babble, a complete new generation of technology is being developed which could revolutionise the way we work, and in particular could make construction sites and offices very different places.

Explained at its simplest, Bluetooth is a form of wireless technology which will remove the need for cables connecting computer equipment. It operates by means of low-cost shortrange radio links which can be between mobile and stationary PCs, mobile phones and other peripheral devices. It will allow rapid 'ad-hoc' connections between devices enabling the creation of individual networks.

It could have as great an impact on communications and the workplace as the mobile phone or the internet and e-mail.

Arup IT director David Taffs says that the technology will offer major benefits in construction applications.

'Offices will have fewer trailing cables, staff will be freer to move around and still be connected to the corporate network. On site it offers opportunities for everyone to keep in touch, collect and disseminate data with less effort than required by phone, ' he notes.

Devices will require a Bluetooth card to enable them to become part of the wireless world.

'By 2003 I expect most palmtop computers will have instant access to the internet and to office networks for wireless e-mail, web browsing, file exchange, games, and real-time video, ' says Taffs. 'They will be able to network on-the-fly with nearby computers, and interact wirelessly with an increasing array of electronic appliances.

These include mobile phones, printers, digital cameras, web TVs, local network access points, auto PCs, bar code scanners, home entertainment and security systems, kiosks, vending machines, automated toll booths indeed, any intelligent device whose usefulness or enjoyment could be improved through invisible connectivity.'

Bluetooth is the first global standard for short range wireless communication for voice and data, and its 2.4GHz band is available unlicensed in most countries. The widespread availability of the technology is likely to be a major driver in its use.

The user group which has promoted the technology includes 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba, plus almost 1,900 member companies. Analysts project Bluetooth will be used in about 800 million devices by 2003, and 1.7 billion devices by 2005. Although such estimates are usually on the optimistic side, if these figures were to prove true then it would mean that Bluetooth is the fastest growing technology ever.

Much of the rush to develop the technology has been spurred by the huge surge in the number of mobile phones in circulation, with around a billion mobile phones expected to be in use over the next few years.

'With most consumers owning a phone capable of performing commercial transactions, then providing these phones with a short range wireless interface opens vast new markets for compatible electronic devices ranging from cordless headsets to automated toll booths, ' says Taffs.

Applications could include being able to control heating or household appliances fitted with Bluetooth technology remotely from the home.

The technology is being made widely available on a royalty-free basis to Bluetooth members.

This is likely to make it more popular to manufacturers of devices suitable for use of the technology - essentially all electronic equipment - while consumer demand for products to be equipped with the technology will further drive its growth.

Another attraction of Bluetooth will be its potential for developing networks. 'Rather than being a point-topoint cable replacement technology, each Bluetooth device will represent a 'personal communication bubble', ' says Taffs. 'Up to eight devices can be linked in a 'piconet' and multiple piconets can be bridged to form a 'scatternet'.

Users will have control over what devices they will communicate with, with Bluetooth's linklevel radio protocol supporting authentication and privacy.'

The technology will allow for automatic 'on-the-fly' connection between linked devices, but will be developed to ensure that users can have control over the devices they communicate with.

The potential for Bluetooth is mind-boggling.

Wireless internet access with palm-top computers and browsers will be possible. Users will also be able to access the office computer network remotely to see documents and drawings at any location.

Other possibilities include video conferencing, using a camera and Bluetooth enabled equipment, or transmission of pictures from site with a digital camera and Bluetooth device.

Networks could be established with suppliers, allowing for better communication and management of supply chains.

Developments in video compression technology and improvements in the bandwidth of wireless phone networks could open up huge areas of potential in video transfer between devices, such as transferring clips. Cameras fitted with Bluetooth could allow real-time video, opening up possibilities such as site monitoring, or even checking on the progress of your child at nursery.

The possibilities for construction are also endless. 'Mobile phones can become an attachment to the palm size computer. Headgear or spectacles will have microphones and ear pieces with transmitters to processors and telecommunications links. These could either be strapped to the body or sitting in the site hut, car or briefcase, ' says Taffs.

Other uses would include tagging of equipment or materials which will provide major security benefits.

'Small chips can be embedded. These will help trace movement of materials and trigger alarms, ' says Taffs.

'They can tell you where on site the component you seek is being stored, hold data on its origins, on how to handle and assemble it. The data can be updated with maintenance and repair records for the benefit of those who have to monitor such things with the visitor requiring a wireless device that can read and display the data held by the chip, ' he says.

While electronic tagging currently applies to those who fall foul of the law, Bluetooth would also enable staff movement to be tracked, or more positively to provide higher security levels in restricting access to sites or buildings.

Named after Danish Viking King Harald Blatland 11 whose 10th century communication skills were so advanced that he managed to use them to pacify and Christianise the then unruly Danes, Bluetooth could prove to be one of the most significant a technological developments of recent times, transforming design offices, sites and workplaces.

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