Interview: Bluetooth SIG's Mike Foley on health devices

By Brian Dolan
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Bluetooth SIG's Mike FoleyAs we reported earlier this week, Continua Health Alliance selected the upcoming Bluetooth Low Energy technology for its second version of guidelines for medical device interoperability. Continua tapped Bluetooth LE for personal area network (PAN) devices, which include activity monitors and heart rate sensors and other mobile solutions that typically connect to a user's cell phone. Continua also announced that ZigBee would be the new technology recommended for fixed wireless health solutions, like biometric sensors distributed in an assisted living facility. 

mobihealthnews recently caught up with Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) to discuss the announcement by Continua, the upcoming Bluetooth LE spec, whether Bluetooth LE and ZigBee will work together and what the announcement means for the future role of competitive technologies like Sensium, ANT+, BodyLAN (used in Nike+) and Z-Wave, in health-related devices.

Read on for the interview with Foley.

mobihealthnews interview with Mike Foley, Executive Director of Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG)

mobihealthnews: Can you describe Bluetooth SIG's relationship with Continua leading up to the most recent announcement?

Foley: The Bluetooth SIG has a medical work group that has been in existence for a few years now and its first work product was the health device profile and Continua adopted that for its Verzion 1 recommendation for wireless health and fitness devices (Ed. note: Continua just announced its first Bluetooth-enabled Continua-certified device.) We are starting to see products come into the market now that have implemented that profile. In addition to creating that specification we also create the test tools used for testing those products and help Bluetooth SIG members and Continua members create products that make use of this specification. With the next version of the Bluetooth core spec, we are introducing a new feature that we call low energy that's targeted at battery-operated devices and small sensor-type devices. This is the version of the specification that Continua just selected for its wireless PAN (personal area networks) devices for its next generation, Version 2 recommendations. We envision continuing working with Continua and having our medical workgroup be the key point for that relationship to ensure that the low energy specification has those profiles built on top of it to enable the use cases that Continua and our members are interested in bringing to market. It will be adopted as a Bluetooth specification just as the current profile that manufacturers would certify for the Bluetooth portion of that using the Bluetooth SIG test tools and certification programs.

Since the Bluetooth Low Energy specification is not yet complete, will Continua have some influence over how the specification turns out given this recent announcement? 

It's true that many of the members of the Bluetooth medical workgroup are also members of Continua, so they are able to contribute requirements and work with how the profiles look and how the specification works to make sure it will be best suited for the types of products they are looking to create. 

When is Bluetooth Low Energy planned to be finalized?

We are targeting for the end of the year this year. 

Does this announcement in any way speed that timeline up or slow it down?

It doesn't in any way slow it down. 

Because Continua's members have already been working on the spec as members of Bluetooth SIG, too?

That's exactly right. What would have been dangerous is if they said, "Yes, we will use it, but here are five new requirements." That wasn't the case because exactly as you said, they have been involved with this for the past year really behind the scenes. As they were working on the current [Version 1] health profile, they were also working on and looking forward to how the work that Bluetooth SIG was doing would be adopted [at Continua] with these advanced low energy specifications. That's been in their sights all along, but by no means did we think that it was a sure thing. Many technologies were reviewed and looked at for what will be the second generation specification. It's a very good reflection on the work by our members in the Bluetooth SIG that Low Energy was selected for this, even though it is not a finalized specification yet.

You mentioned before that Bluetooth Low Energy was picked by Continua for PAN device, or personal area network devices. Can you explain what those are and how that's different from the use cases ZigBee was selected for?

The wireless PAN, or personal area network devices are the ones you tend to carry with you. These are the ones that will potentially communicate with the mobile phone and potentially post status reports to portal for the doctor's office or a personal health and fitness site.

[Continua selected ZigBee for] the fixed installs for something like the panic button you might wear around your neck, devices you plug-in in each room of your house and devices that would leverage a mesh network throughout a facility or home. These are part of the "I've fallen and I can't get up" scenario, if you remember those commercials, where you can hit the button and there is a sensor in that room that talks to other sensors and gets that message to the ambulance, 911 or wherever it would go to.

And Bluetooth was not picked for that use case, correct?

Right, that's what the ZigBee technology was picked for. We don't do mesh networking, we have a star topology. To have a Bluetooth network that spans an entire house, while you can definitely do that, we haven't created specs for it because that really hasn't enabled use cases that our members have wanted to do. 

Up until now, Bluetooth has been the standard at Continua. While Bluetooth is continuing that relationship with Bluetooth Low Energy, is there now an expectation that Bluetooth will work more closely with ZigBee since both technologies are within the Continua umbrella of interoperable products? Or are the Bluetooth and ZigBee products from Continua really in different verticals?

I think time will tell, but right now I do think they are in different verticals. We will see how the market evolves and unfolds to see if those sorts of collaborations make sense. If they do, we'd definitely look into that, but the [use cases] seem very distinct right now. I think that was by design from the Continua selection also. 

What are some products that you think demonstrate the opportunity for these wireless PAN devices that Bluetooth LE will now be the standard for -- it seems like many of them will focus on fitness?

The fitness side clearly is a huge area... Pedometer and heart-related products for use while exercising will allow you to transfer that data via your mobile phone to a web site that tracks your progress over time. Along with that you can have a scale that reports your weight to that same web site as soon as you get on it, so you can begin to see correlations between your weight and the amount of time you exercise for and so on. Where it gets into fitness or medical devices, there's glucose meters, oxygen and blood pressure monitors for outpatient monitoring where sensors can take these readings and transfer to a doctor's office via your phone. 

This seems to be a big win for Bluetooth and ZigBee -- what does this mean for the future role of other technologies like Sensium, Z-Wave, BodyLAN and ANT+ in the health and fitness space?

I think it's a great statement for how people want to build towards open standards. A lot of the companies involved in Continua aren't the mobile phone manufacturers or the company that's going to build the heart rate sensor -- even though companies like that are represented as well -- many of the members are the healthcare companies themselves. They want to ensure that the technologies they are building are using open standards so they can take pieces of technology from different manufacturers and piece them together to build the best system for their patients or market. We have seen that move already in the PC industry and other markets. Now we are seeing that move in other areas once dominated by proprietary, closed solutions. It's a clear message that this industry wants to move to open standards and if you don't play in that area then you either need to figure out how you can play in that are or your market share is going to continually shrink. 

So, what's on the docket for the year ahead besides completing the Bluetooth LE spec?

The other thing that we do is help members test prototype products and devices so that before the spec is adopted we know that at least three member companies have come together and implemented the specification and build tested products on them. That way we know it's solid so when the spec is done products are pretty close to market. A lot of real word engineering is going on right now for creating and testing the prototypes.