ANT+ Technology Explained – How It Works, Why We Use It & Where It’s Headed
The ANT+ consortium recently held their annual developers conference to meet with product manufacturers and coders. It’s where a lot of B-to-B discussions take place, product managers look at the tech and request new profiles for upcoming features. It’s also where startups present new designs, technologies and profiles, sometimes hoping manufacturers will license them, and sometimes just looking to kick things off on their own.
We were fortunate enough to Skype into a meeting room full of folks from some of the leading cycling brands using ANT+ in their devices. Our agenda? To be honest, we really didn’t have one. Afterall, ANT+ works and is the leading standard for low power data transmission between athletic devices. So, we turned the tables on them and asked them what they were doing there, what the future held and what ANT+ has enabled them to do.
Beam past the break and get some intel from Wahoo, KinoMap, 4iiiis and Quarq…
Super quick background: ANT+ is the ultra low power version of the ANT transmission protocol, and it was developed specifically for health, fitness and sports segment. The ANT Alliance is an open special interest group that works to develop the ANT Wireless protocol. ANT Wireless is a division of Dynastream, which is owned by Garmin.
Back to the meeting: The conversation started with Sebastian Barnowski, who leads the ANT+ development team and creates the profiles. A profile, by the way, is simply the communication language for a particular type of information. So, heart rate data has its own profile, as do power, speed, cadence, etc. This lets different devices from different brands work together, which is a boon for everyone. Closed systems like Polar’s proprietary language simply aren’t where things are headed.
So what happens if someone wants to send new information that’s not in the current profiles. Barnowski says they can go about it two ways. First, and quickest, the manufacturer can create their own proprietary profile. That could be done to let them get something to market quicker, or do something that they don’t want other devices to see. This can be done at any time on the manufacturer level, and drastically speeds up the development cycle.
The second option is to request a new public profile from ANT+. This would happen if, say, and I’m totally making this example up, Speedplay wanted to transmit foot pressure or rotation speed from their cleats. They would need a computer company to be able to receive that data, so they’d request a public profile so that various electronics brands could read that data and display the info. In this case, Speedplay would talk to ANT+ and tell them what they’re looking to do.
Surprisingly, an example of this came from Chip Hawkins, president of Wahoo Fitness, a brand that’s made a pretty big deal about their Bluetooth connectivity and iPhone-centric devices. The Kickr trainer started with their own profile, but they have been working with ANT+ to develop a standardized Trainer Profile. Right now, it’s in Alpha development, which means evenutally you’ll be able to buy a variety of trainers and have them work with different online training software.
Existing Kickr trainers will be able to be updated once the public profile is final, but you’ll also have to update your computer or other iOS/mobile device. Saris/Cycleops had the Power Beam Pro profile, which was and remains proprietary, but word is they’re going to add the public profile when its ready, opening their equipment up to broader usage opportunities.
To make the Trainer Profile valuable, it had to have software programs that can read that data. So, Wahoo worked with Phillipe Moity from Kinomap. The result is that Kinomap’s crowdsourced ride videos have full integration with Kickr (and eventually others), allowing the software to change the trainer’s resistance based on the elevation or other data on their training programs. In other words, ANT+ communication lets them sync your effort with the video and vice versa. When you launch the app, it looks for ANT+ sensors to know what data they’ll have to work with, so they need to program in what each piece of data will do to the virtual rider on the screen.
Down the road, Moity says they have demand for premium content on top of the already vast amount of user generated content. To take advantage of that, and open up other usage opps, Kinomap Reply is a new open API that lets other developers stream Kinomap’s content through their own 3rd party app. Developers will be able to buy alloted hours of streaming or unlimited for a monthly fee, which would then get passed along to the end user.
There’s also an upcoming Kinomap Group Training model that lets them track multiple people and average their efforts for spin studio training.
What else can you do with it? Alana Baxter from 4iiii (four eyes) showed off their Sportiiiis heads up display that syncs with ANT+ sensors on your bike to show where you are in your training state via simple LED lights. The system, shown above, mounts to any sunglasses and uses a series of red-to-yellow-to-green lights, with green centered, to indicate if you’re above or below your target zone. Voice prompts from the speaker on the rear provide broader data sets, including heart rate, power, speed and cadence.
But what about Bluetooth? Jim Meyer, cofounder and current technical director of Quarq acknowledged there’s a lot of noise about BT low energy, but said the only game in town for real power meters is ANT+.
“The big benefit is that one device can transmit, and multiple devices can read it,” Meyer said. “That’s important for things like Sportiiiis and others (since riders are likely to have a cycling computer as their primary display). With BT, once its connected to a phone or something, nothing else can listen to that transmitter.
“A real world example of the benefit of this is in triathlon. A sports watch can be paried up to the power meter on your bike along with your Garmin cycling computer and both need to see your power data. Another example is where a second screen might be in a team car and the rider wants to see the data on their computer, too. Not that these apply to everyone, but the point is they can. We polled our customers and found that something like 30% of users were transmitting to more than one device. Plus, if we were to add Bluetooth to our devices, there’s not much space for it to go.”
That said, the Alliance is not blind to the fact that many smartphones are without ANT+ capabilities, so there are new transmitters available that simulcast in both formats. 4iiiis has something like it integrated into their Viiiive heart rate monitor, which allows you to use their iOS app to setup the Sportiiiis device on the go, and we suspect more such uses will come about. HTC, Sony and Samsung are starting to incorporate ANT+ receivers/transmitters into their tablets, phones and laptops, and North Pole Engineering makes ANT-to-Wifi receivers that capture ANT+ information and rebroadcast it over Wifi in a format that can be picked up by iOS devices and others. To use it, a developer simply has to build NPE’s WASP module into their app, and the fitness industry is specifically named as an intended use for it. In case your wondering, for the product developer, the cost to implement ANT+ hardware/software is about the same as for Bluetooth.