Can We Expect Big Things from Bluetooth Low Energy?

June 25, 2017

By Greg Scoblete

Nikon embraced Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) with “SnapBridge” which has automatic image transfers and can sends information from the phone back to the camera to keep the camera’s clock updated and location data accurate based on your phone’s GPS.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Moving high-quality images from a DSLR or mirrorless camera to phone in the field just to post them to Instagram is something of a pain. At a PhotoPlus Expo panel in 2015, photographer Jeremy Cowart asked plaintively why DSLRs couldn’t just post images to social networks directly. Well, now they can. Sort of.

Thanks to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), cameras and smartphones can maintain an “always on” connection and initiate image transfers automatically. Photos snapped with a BLE-enabled DSLR can automatically migrate wirelessly to your camera roll—even when your camera is turned off and your phone is asleep. It’s not quite a direct pipeline to Instagram, but it’s the next best thing.

Bluetooth Low Energy is a variation of the Bluetooth wireless standard designed for “Internet of Things” devices (sensors, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc.). The low-power draw enables these devices to stay turned on without devouring a gadget’s battery life. With the advent of Bluetooth 5, the bandwidth of Bluetooth Low Energy devices has been bumped to 2Mbps/0.25MBps. This is tortoise-like by Wi-Fi standards, but still fast enough to move low-resolution JPEGs along fairly swiftly (a 15MB JPEG would take about a minute to transfer at 2Mbps). “For digital cameras, the 2Mbps speed helped a lot,” says Steve Hegenderfer, director of development programs at the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

Even if it’s not the fastest wireless technology on the block, because the Bluetooth Low Energy radio never shuts off, it can sustain transfers even when the camera is turned off and your smartphone is asleep. What it lacks in speed, it makes up in endurance.

Some camera makers, like Canon, have begun to incorporate BLE in their devices for automatic device pairing. Rather than poke around in your phone menu to connect to your DSLR, BLE makes that connection happen automatically whenever your camera and phone are in close proximity.

But it’s been Nikon that has fully picked up the BLE mantle, marketing its capabilities as “SnapBridge.” While the implementation of SnapBridge has been far from seamless (especially on iOS devices), Nikon has exploited a number of BLE’s benefits. First, they’ve enabled automatic image transfers for either low-res thumbnails or full resolution files. In addition to automatic image transfers, SnapBridge sends information from the phone back to the camera to keep the camera’s clock updated and appends location data from your phone’s GPS to image files.

BLE could add still more functionality to digital cameras, Hegenderfer says. For one thing, it can also transfer images to Bluetooth-enabled PCs or laptops automatically. That’s sub-optimal if time is of the essence, but if you’ve come home late at night and want to hit the sheets, you could wake up in the morning with your images waiting on your PC. BLE can also be used to locate camera gear. The BLE radio broadcasts a recurring beacon that can be picked up by receiving devices between 70 and 450 meters away.

Hegenderfer says that future breakthroughs may improve BLE bandwidth as well, but for now, efforts to pump more data through the BLE pipe tend to result in interference and errors on the receiving end. Longer-range BLE reception is also possible, but that comes at the expense of bandwidth.

How quickly BLE permeates the digital camera market remains to be seen, but given the Internet’s insatiable demand for content, it holds plenty of promise.

This article is part of a larger series of trends and challenges in the photo industry. To read more articles in the series, check out The Ups/Downs of the Year Past and Year Ahead.