There’s a buzz around wireless

Following March’s InAVate Asks poll results, which showed a relatively significant number of people who weren’t aware of ZigBee, we decided to attempt to rectify the situation a little. Who better to explain what it’s all about, and its implications for the AV market, than the Chairman of the ZigBee alliance, Bob Heile.

What’s your background and how did you become Chairman of the ZigBee alliance?

I’ve been in data communications since modems were the fastest thing around, and I ran the modem business for Codex-Motorola for ten years in the eighties. I also did a lot of the pioneering work on high-speed dialup modems and things like that.

In the mid-80’s I realised there was a whole new world out there and some really interesting stuff was happening in wireless. We did our first wireless LAN work internally thinking that was going to be a really interesting future business opportunity, back then there were no unlicensed bands.

In 2002 several standards groups and start ups later I was involved in the formation of the ZigBee Alliance, and being a fool I agreed to help organise that as we started to take it seriously and do some proper work on it. It started out for me as a volunteer effort to help to get it going but very quickly became a full time thing.

What is the ZigBee alliance and what does it do?

Our membership now is north of 220 companies in 24 countries on 6 continents, and it’s fairly equally distributed across the globe.

The organisation is not for profit and it allows member companies to come together in a legal framework to discuss the standard. There’s the on going job of maintaining the standards. But another equally important process is to oversee anonymous, unbiased, independent testing. That’s key to this kind of body as it allows manufacturers who are submitting stuff for approval to be confident that their intellectual property is safe.

The last thing we do is create brand identity and market the technology. One of the things I do is go out and educate so that people recognise the logo and really know what ZigBee is. We organise regional open houses and showcases to allow the market to meet the alliance and have questions answered and so forth.

Also what we’ve set out to do is to work with other standards in the real world. There are plenty of other standards out there that we can come across in buildings like DALI (a lighting control standard) and BACnet (a building automation and control protocol). We have working groups set up with both of those to work out how we can communicate in a standardised way. It’s much better this way than to simply ignore their existence.

For the completely uninitiated, what is ZigBee?

Well, the elevator pitch is that it’s a wireless standard aimed at sensor and control networks. How is that special? Well these networks can be anything from five nodes in a residential situation to thousands in a commercial building so we need a wireless technology that scales well but above all that really can take care of itself, and its networking, automatically. Imagine trying to manually configure a thousand nodes.

Another very important property of ZigBee is that it responds independently to change. Things break, new radios are added so another piece of the puzzle is that it’s flexible. It’s also capable of operating without intervention for years. Another thing that’s pretty important is battery life. Although some items you might control are already powered, a lot aren’t so we looked at something that had a battery life of almost the shelf life of a battery – six or seven years. And all of this has to be very low cost because of the volumes you’re talking about. Finally it had to be a global open standard so that you could use it in any country. And that’s what ZigBee has achieved.

What’s the difference between Bluetooth or WiFi or other wireless standards and ZigBee

Well they really were developed to do completely different things. Bluetooth was designed for wireless headsets. It’s got great quality of service etc but it only copes with an eight node network so it doesn’t do well with 24 light fittings in a room. Also it isn’t designed with the same battery life, it only works for about six hours. That’s not a problem for its intended use with mobile phones, because they are also recharged pretty often. It’s also a lot more complex and therefore can’t do all the smart set up things that ZigBee does.

How can ZigBee specifically can help an AV integrator?

Most of the applications would be in the control infrastructure of a system. I have seen some pretty sophisticated boardroom installations, for example, where you go activate the projector, the lights drop to a certain level, the blinds close and the projector comes on. It’s one-touch stuff, and there’s a nice little touch screen to do that.
With ZigBee you can do all that stuff without having to wire it all together. I mean in a new building sure, you can put the wires in the wall or under the floor. But if you’re going in and want to remodel the boardroom, all you need to do is put a load controller on the blinds, build ZigBee into the light fittings and the projector and then all of a sudden it’s done wirelessly.
The other thing that is helpful is the meta-data aspect. We can take information back from these devices about temperature or time a projector lamp’s been on for. All this kind of thing is really useful in the AV environment.

What’s the future for ZigBee now? Is it here to stay?

By the nature of the infrastructure that ZigBee tends to wind up in, it’s going to be around for a long time. The typical lifetime of a building lighting system might be 10 years. This isn’t technology that you swap out on a whim, so we’re developing decent future proofing in the technology. Good, core, underlying technologies are the key to this. It’s already cheap, and it’s going to get dirt-cheap. We’re not talking about a fly-by-night technology.

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