Audio Chip Leverages NFC, BLE for IoT-Enabled Speakers

By Claire Swedberg

Manufacturers of speakers and other devices are building NFC-enabled products to allow automated Wi-Fi connections or Bluetooth pairing, and are employing BLE mesh functionality to use the devices as part of an Internet of Things network in a user's home or other facility.

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Qualcomm Technologies has built Near Field Communication (NFC) 13.56 MHz technology into its latest audio chip, along with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) functionality, in order to make it easier for consumers to pair wireless devices. The CSRA68100 is the latest audio chip released by Qualcomm with BLE functionality, the company reports, and the first to include an integrated NFC radio.

Qualcomm offers a family of entry-level flash devices known as the QCC300x range of products for speaker and headset manufacturers to build into their devices. The goal, explains Chris Havell, Qualcomm’s senior director of product management, is to make smart-home deployments accessible to anyone with a smartphone who acquires a device using the chips. The QCC300x family, including the CSRA68100 chip, was released last month.

Qualcomm’s Chris Havell

Qualcomm says its latest family of audio chips all offer BLE functionality. The primary use case is intended to be the enabling of connection to other BLE-enabled devices, such as sensors. Future updates to the software application stack for the CSRA68100 could allow the chip to serve as part of a BLE-enabled mesh network within a user’s home or business. The NFC function in the CSRA68100 chip could enable faster Wi-Fi connection and more automatic Bluetooth pairing, Havell says. One possible application would be to use the NFC functionality in a smartphone to connect a networked speaker or audio device to a local Wi-Fi network.

If a user had the proper Wi-Fi credentials for a specific location—such as his or her home—stored on an NFC-enabled phone, that person could then tap the phone against the NFC-enabled speaker in the home.

NFC could also be used to pair Bluetooth-enabled devices more automatically. This is becoming a more valuable application, Havell says, as users acquire a growing number of Bluetooth-enabled devices. Those with multiple Bluetooth devices must scroll through the possible items to find the one they want to pair with. “As end users are increasingly surrounded by Bluetooth-enabled products,” Havell notes, choosing the correct item is becoming more complex. In fact, consumers can expect a proliferation of Bluetooth-enabled thermostats, lighting controls and security options in homes and at other locations in the near future, he adds.

With NFC technology, a user could automatically pair his or her smartphone with a speaker or other device with a built-in CSRA68100 chip, simply by tapping the phone next to that device.

The audio chip family comes with BLE technology as well, for use in a variety of applications. Qualcomm expects that companies will use the BLE functionality in Bluetooth-enabled headsets, for instance, to communicate via BLE with wearable devices—heart-rate and other types of sensors, for example. The headset could capture data from these devices and forward it to a phone when a user, such as an athlete or recreational jogger, returned home.

Qualcomm has been working closely with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) on the release of its new mesh-network specification, and intends to enable its customers to build Bluetooth mesh-network functionality into their devices in the future. For instance, the BLE function will allow speakers using the Qualcomm audio chips to connect to other speakers, using the newly announced BLE mesh spec (see Bluetooth SIG Specification Enables BLE Mesh Networks). In this case, with mesh-network functionality, a user could program sound or just the power-on function in a single speaker, and the speakers could then share that prompt with other home or building speakers within the network.

With the mesh functionality, a speaker’s BLE-enabled chip could forward data from a smartphone to other BLE-enabled devices, far beyond speakers or other audio equipment—such as lighting controls, for instance. In that way, an individual could change the lighting on a different floor by using the BLE functionality in a speaker using a Qualcomm audio chip, as long as the speaker was configured as part of a mesh network.

“The vision we have is making the consumer experience easier,” Havell states. “Consumers have become readily conversant with connecting Bluetooth to their devices,” and the NFC and BLE functionalities are two more ways to ease the use of Bluetooth in audio equipment. Some Bluetooth device manufacturers are already building functionality into their products to use NFC technology, he adds, as well as BLE for pairing Bluetooth devices.