LAST UPDATED: 2 December 2022
Is Bluetooth a viable alternative to RFID for automated mass timing of races at a fraction of the cost? We hear from Bluetooth timing pioneer Jean-Louis Lafayeedney.
Professional race timing is one of those things everyone’s come to expect when entering a race. And, for more than three decades, RFID has been the undisputed gold standard when it comes to timing races.
But, with new technologies coming on to the market, cheaper and more widely available alternatives to RFID timing are fast becoming a reality. Alternatives like Bluetooth, which can be programmed to deliver highly accurate race times at a fraction of the cost of RFID.
Does that mean you could soon be timing your race on your own, using just a pair of phones? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to be getting into in this episode with Atlas Live Tracking Founder, Jean-Louis Lafayeedney.
In this episode:
- Bluetooth race timing: what it is and how it works
- Tags and components for a Bluetooth timing system
- Setting up multiple timing points using a Bluetooth timing system
- Types of races Bluetooth timing is best and least suited for
- Bluetooth vs RFID timing accuracy
- Bluetooth vs RFID timing cost
- How to hire or buy a Bluetooth timing system
Thanks to GiveSignup|RunSignup for supporting quality content for race directors by sponsoring this episode. More than 21,000 in-person, virtual, and hybrid events use GiveSignup|RunSignup's free and integrated solution to save time, grow their events, and raise more. If you'd like to learn more about GiveSignup|RunSignup's all-in-one technology solution for endurance and fundraising events visit runsignup.com.
Hey Jean-Louis. Welcome to the podcast!
Hi Panos. Thank you very much.
Well, thanks a lot for doing this. Let's start with where you're currently based. Is it the UK now? France? Where are you currently based?
My company is based in England, in the North near Middlesbrough. I am currently based in Léon, France.
Perfect. Your company is Atlas Live Tracking, and you've started that a couple of years ago. Is that right?
Yes. My company is Atlas Live Tracking. We started, more like, three years ago.
About Atlas Live Tracking
Excellent. Tell us a little bit about what Atlas Live Tracking does.
Sure. Atlas Live Tracking is, really, about providing the best possible experience for athletes and spectators through the application of technology. So that's our kind of-- that's our mission. That's what we try to do. We do that for who? We do that for race organizers, and we do that for race timing companies. A little bit of context in terms of-- a little bit of background as to Atlas - how we started and why. Essentially, Atlas was born out of, really, my love for sports and technology. I used to be a very active triathlete and trail runner. I just couldn't understand why there was not a better technology solution for timing and tracking out there. It just seemed to me that a lot of technology was old school - hadn't changed in a long time - and there had to be a better solution. So, really, with my knowledge of semiconductors and radio technology, I partnered up with a robotics company based in the UK. So, Atlas essentially grew out of a robotics company that, as I say, I had a prior relationship with. Essentially, we're an incubatee company within that much larger group. That means we get a lot of dedicated resources with the manufacturing, we have testing labs, which are used for high end robotics, so, you can imagine that puts us in pretty good position to develop high quality technology. So that's, kind of, a bit of background about Atlas.
In terms of the services that you offer for races, you do live tracking - I guess, as the name suggests - but also Bluetooth timing is a big part of what you guys offer.
Yeah, that's correct. Live Tracking, sort of, covers a multitude of different things, I suppose. But, Atlas specifically offers three distinct services for its customers. One is GPS tracking. The next one is Bluetooth timing. And the last one is what we call Hybrid Live Virtual.
Which is what?
Hybrid Live Virtual is, essentially, the ability to create a set course somewhere using our technology - very light touch. The athletes or the participants run, walk, or cycle the course using a mobile app - download it onto their mobile phone - which interacts with very soft hardware on the course. That gives precision timing - professional timing - but socially distanced, for a course that can be either permanent, or temporary. We've done stuff with virtual organizers in the UK. We've done stuff with permanent courses in France. So, it's quite adaptable for both, really.
What is Bluetooth timing?
Okay, great. Today, I wanted to, basically, pick your brain and lean on your expertise to get all of our listeners, and myself included - because I can't claim to be anything close to an expert - to learn more about Bluetooth timing, specifically. And I'd like to start, if that's okay with you, with what Bluetooth timing is, and how it differs from other forms of race timing that people may be familiar with.
Sure. Bluetooth timing - what is it? Bluetooth timing, really, is race timing done through Bluetooth technology. So, in its most basic, that's what it is. Today, if you look at most races - we're talking about endurance racing, from running, trail, cycling, anything human powered-- if you look at that today, nine out of ten races that have timing is done with RFID technology. I think we can both agree with that. Bluetooth timing is an alternative to RFID timing, where we use the Bluetooth protocol, instead of RFID protocol, to provide precision timing. Ultimately, it works in a similar way. You need a piece of hardware that is worn by the athlete or the participant, and you need something to read some signals from that hardware based on the finish line or timing points. So works in a overall, similar way to RFID technology, but with a very, very distinct difference. The difference being that Bluetooth timing is, really, based on software, whereas RFID timing is, really, based on hardware. It means that the piece of equipment that sits on the finish line, for example, can be just a mobile phone. Because, ultimately, it's the software on the mobile phone that's doing the reading. When the athlete wears the tag, or the pod, as we call it, which is really a transponder on his wrist or on her ankle, they will run past the finish line, in the same way that they would do in a normal race. The mobile phones sitting at the finish line, equipped with the software, will read the pod on the athlete as it runs by, and be able to detect who that person is, and the accurate timing derived from that person.
Right. Just, sort of, for historical context here - how long has Bluetooth timing been around?
Bluetooth timing is based on Bluetooth. Everybody knows, or most people know what Bluetooth is. Bluetooth has been around for ages - like decades. But Bluetooth is in constant evolution. Actually, for race timing purposes, we don't use Bluetooth per se, but Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) - which is a derivative of Bluetooth. That has only been around for a few years. And the development, as such, has enabled its use case for race timing really only in the last two to three years - more or less when we started.
What components do I need for a Bluetooth timing system?
I see. So, you said that basically, I mean-- you mentioned that the part of the setup involves having a phone and a tag, in the same way that you have a tag with an RFID system. What exactly is the setup - like the full hardware setup - of a Bluetooth timing system? What are all the components required for timing?
The athletes need to wear a transponder. As I said before, we call that a pod. Some people might call it something different. But, really, it's a beacon. We can just use a generic term for the beacon. So, the athletes wear a beacon, which is actually very similar in look, size and feel to an active RFID chip that you would wear for a triathlon, for example. So, anyone listening to this podcast can think, "That's what they look like." It goes on your wrist. It goes in your ankle. It's a small device. It weighs 12 grams. It's very light, and it's waterproof, of course. So, the athlete needs to wear that piece of equipment. Then that works with the software that I described, which is going to be either on a laptop, or a specific reader, or a mobile phone. Atlas is one company, but there are others doing Bluetooth timing. We only use mobile phones, for instance, whereas I know some of the other companies may use a different piece of kit - we've managed to get it on a mobile phone. To answer your question, the athlete needs to wear the transponder or the beacon. The mobile phone needs to be set up at the finish line, start line, and anywhere in between that you want it. And then, there is the software. So the software is used by the race organizer, the race timing company, to use that to set up the race. It's a race management system.
So, is it like scoring software essentially - the same kind of thing you'd have for an RFID setup?
That's exactly right, although, it is simpler. But yes, that's exactly what it is.
And you mentioned a phone at the finish line...Are we talking about one phone, two phones, multiple phones? What exactly is the setup with the phone, which I guess is a receiver in all this, right?
Yeah, exactly. The phone is a receiver in this instance. Instead of the blue mats on the ground, or the big antennas that you see sometimes, we just put a phone - literally, a phone. We have a specific timing box that, we call it-- which is a waterproof box. You put the phone in. It's got a battery pack and a fan. It keeps it cool and waterproof all day long. For instance, we would just, literally, stick that box on the finish line. If you've got an arch - you imagine an arch - we have one phone in a box on one side of the arch, and one phone on another box on the other side of the arch. We always recommend to our customers that they have minimum, two phones at the finish line - preferably three, with one as a backup. For the timing gates along the race course, be it trail running, cycling, whatever, you just need one phone. Normally, I've seen in cycling, for example, they put the phone on a tripod, because it's easier to see, it's easier to manage for the volunteers. They just put it on a tripod, stick it by the side of the road, forget about it.
What are the advantages of Bluetooth timing?
Which immediately sounds like there's some benefits to this. I mean, one of them being that, at least with the mat antennas, I know that lots of events - particularly like high speed events - they don't like them having, like, mats on the ground. It's a lot easier, I guess, having a phone around. The other thing that comes to mind is that, if you're doing, like, a really tough trail race, or a mountain race somewhere - which I have done in the past - having those intermediate gate and timing points, having the ability to have those just set up with a phone is a lot easier than having to, like, drag timing equipment up a mountain or something.
Yeah. There's two points in your question there, I think. The first point being the tripod, like, "Why a tripod?" etc. The reason being is, it's easier for the volunteer to just handle it. When they have it on a tripod, they can see it, they can manage it, they know where it is, no one's going to lose it. One of the questions we get, sometimes, from our customers is, "What happens if my phone goes missing? Is someone going to steal my phone?" That seems to be a concern for people, and it's probably a valid concern. More so in France, I would say. Being French, I can say these things! I would say to you that, a tripod just makes it easier. It's easier for the athlete. Everyone can see it. It kind of provides a little bit of relief for the athletes, because they know that's a timing point as well. When they're whizzing by on a bike, it kind of makes it easier to refer to the timing points, in their mind. To your second point: Yes. Timing mats on a public road, when you haven't got the permission to close the road, is a non starter. Hence, why Bluetooth timing actually has been a bit of a game-changer for cycling. Because it now means you don't-- you can have timing, but you don't need to close the road. So, you think about that. Let me give you a concrete example: time trials for cycling. Time trials happen up and down the UK every weekend, during the season. It's roughly 25 weeks per year. Every single week, there's tons of clubs doing time trials. They cannot put RFID equipment there - or very few of them do - because the public roads is too dangerous. Setting that up is just not a start. So, when we came along with our system, people loved it, because all they did was put a phone on a tripod, or in that box I described, by the side of the road. And that just created the finish line. Ans we have a-- I mean, it's slightly separate, we have an app with 4TT,in cycling, where you can actually start the athlete individually. You do a countdown: three, two, one, go. You just start them individually like that, which is how normal TTs are done, and the rest is done by the software. So, when they whizz past the phone at the finish line, that captures their time. That's how it's done.
Since we've been mentioning phones here, I think it's good to mention that these phones are not exactly like any kind of phone, is it?
Not exactly - that's right. First of all, it's only on Android, not on iOS. So here we're talking about the reader - so, the finish line and the timing points. Now, I can't talk to other companies who do Bluetooth timing. But, certainly, for Atlas, it's only on Android. What we do with our customers is say that, "For the finish line, we prefer you to use our phones, or the phones that we have already labelized as good for precision timing. For timing gates, you can pretty much use whatever phone you want. If your volunteers have an Android phone - as long as it's Android 7+ or I think it's 6+, actually, then it's fine. It's not an issue. But for the finish line, where we want to control the outcome, best use our phones."
Okay. But, essentially, for all the other timing points, I just go around see how many Android phones I've got and, essentially, I've got as many timing points, basically.
That's the concept. Yeah, exactly.
Bluetooth timing transponders
Which is fantastic. Then another thing that we need to, sort of, clarify. You spoke of those pods - the transponders. These are not-- because most people, I guess, would be most familiar with the disposable type, we're not talking about disposable transponders here. This is something that people need to issue to the participants, and then collect at the finish line, I guess, and then reuse.
That's correct. Yes, exactly.
Right. Do you see, like-- in terms of where the technology is going, is there any chance that we might be seeing disposable transponders, with this technology anytime soon?
Not anytime soon. No. Bluetooth, at the moment, is not equipped for that. But within the years to come? Yes. We will see disposable transponders.
What types of races can I time with a Bluetooth timing system?
Excellent. Let's move on to talk a little bit about what type of event this technology's best or least suited for. I think we mentioned a couple of examples. You spoke of cycling - the benefits Bluetooth timing as a setup has over other systems. As I mentioned, it's clear that when you're doing races in environments that really-- on courses where it's really difficult to get around the course, being able to time with just one phone, that's also very helpful. Is there any kind of race - any other type of race - that Bluetooth timing is particularly well suited for, or any type of race that it's not very well suited for?
Yep. I think both. If I could start with the well suited, and then I'll finish with the not well suited. For the well suited, anything involving water, where passive RFID is not so good. In particular, UHF Gen 2 RFID - not very good with water. Everybody knows that the other problem that you have there is that, when the weather degrades, you have a lot of rain when people are running - what can often happen is that the RFID tag will get scrunched a little bit, or maybe broken, etc. That reduces their ability to transmit. So, Bluetooth timing is very good, where you have mud, water, rain, or difficult conditions like very humid environments - like in Hong Kong, for example, or Malaysia. That lends itself very well for triathlons, swimrun, obstacle course racing - where we've had quite a bit of success with it - trail running, of course, and some swimming events. To be clear, it doesn't transmit in water. If someone is swimming in open water, for instance, it's not going to transmit when the pod is in the water. But as soon as it comes out of the water - imagine the guy's got it in his cap, or on his wrist - as soon as it's out of the water it transmits immediately. And cycling, of course. So there's no limit in terms of speed. For example, if a cyclist is whizzing past at 45km or 50km an hour, it's not a problem. Runner's going slowly - not a problem. So, it's really good for all of those events. Now, where it's not so good, it's mass participation events. Where Bluetooth is not applicable, it's for large mass participation events. Here, I'm talking about events where you have more than 3,000-4,000 people, where you are anticipating-- say, for example, if you're a race director, and you're anticipating more than 20 to 25 people at once, in one second, on the finish line. Bluetooth timing is not for those types of events.
Does that mean that I can't-- so if I have-- which is actually would have been my next question-- so if I have a high density finish rate, can I not mitigate that by just putting more phones - like more receivers - on the finish line?
Yes, you can. Absolutely, you can. Somebody asked us to do this, and I said to them, "Quite frankly, there comes a point, in my view, where if you've got more than 4,000 athletes, you're going to have to equip each one of those athletes with an individual pod, and you're going to have to line your finish line with more phones." So, your cost goes up. At some point, that ratio between the efforts, the cost, and the efficacy of using disposable RFID, just doesn't make sense for Bluetooth timing anymore. Here we're specifically talking about big city marathons, big city half marathons. When we conceived Bluetooth timing - and again, I can't speak to the other companies - but when we conceive Bluetooth timing, it was not with that in mind. That's partly economic, as I just described, and partly as a limitation of the technology itself. But on the flip side, you can imagine that-- if you just take an event like swimrun, for example, you can have five to ten entries into water, and five to ten exits of water. You can't do that with RFID. It's just not possible. Today, how do they do it? They do it with volunteers standing there with clipboards and WhatsApp groups. Here, you instead-- you just set up a phone at the start or at the end, and you can record as many people as you want. So, it has many plus points and some negative points. Overall, I think the market is big enough, so we don't need to worry too much about the fact that, we won't be doing London Marathon anytime soon.
Yeah. I think there's definitely a use case-- I know you've been focusing on obstacle events, and multi-sport, because of the terrain, the difficulties, and the hardiness of the Bluetooth transponder, but I think there's definitely a case for events on the sub-1,000, sub-2,000 type start line, which, by the way, in most countries - in all countries - it is the bulk of events that take place, right?
Yes, exactly. It leads quite nicely to the point that, where this really excels, actually, for smaller events, is the fact that it's far more cost effective. If you're a small organizer - let's say you've got 200 people in your race - you have a choice. You can either do the timing by yourself, or you can get a timing company involved. The timing company comes at a minimum cost, typically. I know what it is in France, UK, Hong Kong, America, etc. I mean, we all know that cost is-- there's a minimum cost. And it doesn't really matter on the number of athletes. It's a minimum cost to call this timing company out. Where Bluetooth timing comes in is that, we can completely-- we can halve that cost. And we could do so, but maintaining a very high level of service, by effectively allowing for a DIY service. That means the organizer would basically do the timing by themselves using their volunteers and stuff. Because Bluetooth timing is so simple and so easy, it's actually very doable for them to do.
Can I time my race using Bluetooth timing myself?
Is that something that you've had actual events-- like the DIY approach? Have you had events go down the DIY route, and everything worked fine? You just instructed them, remotely, what to do, and you sent them the phones and everything worked?
Yes, we have. I'm caveating this with the fact that one of the race organizers that we did this with, was or is a professional race timer. So, it's a little bit easier for them. We have our first event here in France coming up in June, which is completely DIY. Small race - 350 people. Trail running race. That's going to be a real litmus test of how they deal with this, because these people are not professional race organizers. They are not professional timers. So, it's gonna be a very interesting litmus test. But yes, the concept is there. And we-- in any case, we would be behind a computer all day, to help. In the event that there's any mistakes, problems, or questions - and inevitably there will be - we are there, behind a computer, behind the phone, to help out. All of the work is done beforehand. I mean, if-- to a race organizer who's listening, it might sound a bit daunting, knowing that, you've got to put in a GPS file, you've got to upload all your entries, you have to set up your course, you got to make sure you get your categories right, etc. All of that's done beforehand. With our help, without our help - doesn't matter. The system is quite simple. Then on race day, all the organizer has to do is, actually, make sure that the phones are switched on. The app is switched on properly. There's only one button anyway. The right phones are distributed to the right volunteers at the right points, in the course. And the software does the rest. There is no button on the transponders, pods or beacons. There's no button. These beacons work all the time - a little bit like active RFID. So, there's nothing for the athlete to get wrong. That's often where-- sometimes, the problem is the athletes don't turn on their equipment, or they wear it in the wrong way. You can't really do that with a Bluetooth timing. Whether you wear it in your pocket, in your sock, or even if they stuffed it in their shoe, it would still work, because the signals are strong. There's no button to press, and it's continually sending signal. So, organizers don't need to worry about that sort of thing. They just need to worry about the mobile phones - making sure the app is working. We can see that remotely, anyway, with our system. We can see-- we can monitor the phones, the battery levels, whether the app is operational or not, whether there's an issue or not. I've had that happen to me before, for example. That's all they need to worry about. That's it. The rest is done automatically by the software, including all the results that go on the live leaderboard.
If hardware is the body of your race timing setup, software is the brain. And right now, GiveSignup|RunSignup’s RaceDay Scoring is the leader in timing and scoring software. So why is your choice of timing software important? Let’s hear from race timer and GiveSignup|RunSignup’s Race Day Expert, Crisp McDonald. Crisp, good to have you on.
Hi Panos. Thanks for having me.
So we’ve been discussing Bluetooth timing hardware today. What types of timing hardware does RaceDay Scoring work with?
RaceDay Scoring's an open scoring system designed to work with all major chip timing hardware, including Chronotrack, MYLAPS, Race Result, Ipico, and many more. State-side, we don't have many Bluetooth timers yet. I'm sure that will come in the future. But theoretically, a Bluetooth system should work with RaceDay Scoring as long as it can create a dependable CSV or txt output, that has either bib or chip number, and a time of day and date stamp. We'd love to test it out with a Bluetooth timer, given the opportunity.
Yeah. I think you’ll be seeing a lot more Bluetooth hardware coming onto the market. So, "open system" is definitely something I want to look for in a timing software, if I’m a race director or timer. For participants, though, what is it about timing software that matters most to them?
For whatever timing solution you choose, the most important thing to participants is that their results are accurate, and they know their results as soon as they finish. I think that's one thing that, over the past three or four years with more and more Wi-Fi or Mi-Fi on site, the people have become accustomed to. That's just live push of results to the web, and live text/email of results as well. One of the fun features that is really easy to set up with RaceDay Scoring is a live leaderboard, where participants finishing the race can immediately see their position. So, it's kind of our take that using technology to enhance the race experience is really what timing is all about.
Yeah, that makes sense. And I've also recently read that Version 3 of RaceDay Scoring, that just came out, is also much smarter about scoring teams, for things like relays and corporate runs?
The new release of RaceDay Scoring is really cool. There's been some substantial innovations for timers that are scoring events with the team component. The social nature of teams really does make our race day more fun, and also helps drive both registration and participation. However, on the back end, as a timer, it can make scoring much more complex. RaceDay Scoring 3 simplifies the setup of things from cross-country to complicated team events, and even allows for scoring on all types of aggregate scoring definitions or rules, such as age, gender, last finisher, etc.
Awesome. I know you guys are pretty proud of what you’ve achieved with RaceDay Scoring and the amount of work that went into it - so, well done. Many thanks for coming on, Crisp. Now, let’s get back to talking Bluetooth timing with Jean-Louis Lafayeedney - specifically, what does Bluetooth timing cost?
How much does Bluetooth timing cost?
Let's take the example of-- let's say I'm doing like a 500 person 10km running race. What do the logistics look like, from my point of view, step by step? And actually, if you can give us some numbers, what does the cost look like? I'd like to look at what the cost looks like doing this with Bluetooth, and what it may have cost me to do this with RFID - just looking over a concrete example, 500 people, 10km.
Yeah, sure thing. Let's start with the Bluetooth. What you would do is you would go on to a site of somebody who provides a service. Atlas is obviously one example, but I'm sure there are others. You would, essentially, fill out the form saying, "I have a race. This is my race, estimated number of people..." And you find out what the price is. The price, in this instance, would be roughly €750 for that race you described. That's 500 people times by €1.50.
Which would make it, sort of like, around the $1,000 mark - for comparison, for like our US listeners.
For US systems, yes. That would be-- I don't know what the current exchange rate is. But yeah, roughly $1,000. Just to compare that to RFID-- RFID in Europe certainly would be twice that price, minimum. For 500 people, you're talking €2.50 is your normal-- the minimum cost per runner. You would register your details online, if you're not already registered with us. We would contact you. We would find out a bit more about your race. Then, we'd create an account for you in our system. You would upload some of the details that you want - for example, your description of your race. You would put photos. You would put maybe a sponsor banner, if you've got one. So, if you've got any sponsors, you put them in there. We've got an area for sponsors. So, you would create that profile in our system. Then, that's when we help you take over. We would help you with the GPX. We would help you put the timing points, physically, on the GPX map. We would, then, issue you the equipment. The equipment would be what? In your instance, it would be 500 or 550 beacons, because we always leave a bit more spare. We would send it to you, including three phones for the finish line. That's what we would send to you. You would, then, issue the pods to the people on the day, or beforehand, as you wish. You would set up the finish line - the two or three phones. They actually-- we would send them in a box - in this waterproof box I'm talking about. You would just put that box at your finish line. Then if you want split timing points, which is no extra cost from us anyway, you would simply go into the Android App Store, download the Atlas app onto your volunteers' phones, or any other phones you've got - staff, volunteers, whoever, spectators. You would authorize them with a code to become timing gates. So, they download the app. The app is very simple - they can only do one thing. There's no passwords, nothing like that. So, they download the app. They login with your code. You tell them to go somewhere - timing point one, two, three, halfway mark, whatever. They turn on the app - that same setup. When the athletes begin the race, all you need to do, at this point in time, is to actually make the race active. So, on the Atlas system, for example, we have a "System Active" button, which you would press so you would enable the gates on either phones, so that they're not enabled too early. You decide when you enable them, and you decide when to start the race. All that can be done from the mobile phone. Then, the athletes will run the course. They will finish the race, and all of the timing is done automatically. As soon as they finish, a few seconds afterwards, it gets loaded up into the cloud. It then goes down to a mobile web app, or even the mobile app for spectators, for the athletes, for yourselves. So, all the live results come in immediately. And all the spectators have access to all of those results, of course, on the mobile web app - or indeed, they can download the Atlas app and get it that way.
Can I time intermediate race points using Bluetooth timing?
That's great. I mean, it's super streamlined. What about the intermediate timing points? Would those upload live as well - assuming that the phones that record the intermediate timing points have a connection to the cloud?
Yes, they would. What would happen is the athlete would run past a phone-- let's say the phone is two kilometers out from the start. It's the same mechanism as for the finish line. So, as soon as he passes that phone, as long as the guy's got a data connection - very important, it needs a data connection. If not, that data stored on the phone, and he can upload it later - but as long as he's got a data connection, that athlete's information will go straight to the cloud, and down to the same live leaderboard. So yes, as a race organizer, you have a live leaderboard throughout the race.
What do professional race timers think of Bluetooth timing?
Excellent. And I know, because we've discussed this in the past, you guys have been trying - and I suppose others may as well - to also try to pitch this technology to timers. What has the response been? Because they're the professionals. The vast majority of them time either through RFID, or manually for some of the smaller races. How are they viewing Bluetooth as an alternative?
Yeah. Most of the race timing companies that we have spoken to, first of all, I would say, 80% have never heard of Bluetooth timing before I call them. That's the first thing. So, I have to explain what it is. But they're all interested to listen, to hear about new technology. The first thing that they respond to is the multiple timing points. I would say, that's the key for race timers being interested in a Bluetooth timing system is that-- because of the way that race timing companies charge in their business model - the way they make money - the multiple timing points opens up quite a lot of different avenues for them. So, that's been the first thing. The second thing they will ask is, "What's your accuracy like?" So once they understand what the limitations on the mass-participation thing is, they will then ask, "What is your precision of timing?" That's the next question. Then, the question that comes after that is actually on the software. "What is the software for a timer looks like? How complex is it? How simple is it? How user friendly is it?" So once we get over those kind of questions, as long as they are typically put at ease, and we satisfy the requirements - because the requirements are very high. Race timers have a very high requirement of their equipment - then, they're naturally-- most of them are interested. Frankly speaking, most of them are interested, but interested from different perspectives. For instance, Bluetooth timing, is not there to replace the equipment that they have today. So, no race timer is just going to throw out all the equipment and replace it all with Bluetooth. That doesn't make any sense, right? Bluetooth timing is there to provide an alternative. It's there to provide them with the ability to get different clients on different sports that they didn't have before. Here specifically, I'm talking about guys who've got only a certain type of passive RFID. Now, they can go and get triathlon. Now, they can go get swimrun. Now, they can go get specific types of cycling events that they couldn't get before - like mountain biking, for instance. So, it opens up a new avenue for some race timers. Some race timers have actually-- they like the fact that it's considerably - how do I put this - it's considerably lighter cost-wise, than the equivalent in active RFID, for instance. Sometimes, you might think of it as a similar, sort of, system to active RFID, in terms of it doing the same sort of sports in the same sort of way. But the cost is a lot lighter, both in their own pocket, as well as deployments in the field - so maybe one less staff when they go to the actual race site. Overall, most race timers I've spoken to have been very enthusiastic about it. The way they see a little bit of a conflict, perhaps, or threat is what we just discussed about seven minutes ago, which is the so-called DIY organizer. Now, small organizers-- where there might be a conflict as small organizers, who are really on the edge of whether paying or not, €1,000+ for a service that with a small race they don't really need to pay for. We could, yes, cannibalize that business. So, some of them are slightly worried, they might be cannibalizing their own business at the low end, if I could put it that way. So, that has been one of the concerns, I would say. But mitigated from the fact that, once they think about it a little bit more, they realize that, actually, they can just simply become DIY service providers. That's actually one of the exciting things for some of them. It's that some race timers think, "Well, hold on a second. Can I be a DIY race timer?" I've got my normal events that I go to - three or four a weekend. Then, I've got my "virtual events". So, I would be sending out this equipment out to the race organiser who's too small to pay for my services anyway. And I can have one staff back at the office monitoring and supporting those events. So, actually, my revenues go up nicely, and my costs only go up a little bit.
How accurate is Bluetooth timing compared to RFID timing?
Right. And one of the things you mentioned there, that I wanted to touch on, as well, was accuracy. So this might be on people's minds, in terms of thinking of all the huge, very robust, RFID hardware they may be picturing versus a phone. They may be wondering, like, "Oh, yeah. That sounds terribly convenient and everything - but how accurate, really, is it compared to what I'm used to with RFID?"
This is always why I propose a test as well, with race timers. I think I've only ever had one refusal of a test, to be quite honest, with the race timers I've contacted. We have conducted tests. Now, here, I'm gonna have to get specific about Atlas, as opposed to other companies, because I cannot simply talk about other companies on this particular topic. I know what one of our big competitors claims, in terms of timing accuracy. And I can tell you what we have heard. We actually have found that our system, in terms of timing, compares very well with passive RFID. In fact, the timing is on a par with the best passive RFID. That's what we have heard. We have conducted multiple tests. Most of our work, to be honest with you, is the stuff that you will never see - you, Panos, race directors, race timer companies. Most of the work that Atlas Live Tracking has done to get the system up and running is all in the trigonometry algorithms, to get the best possible extraction of accuracy of timing from our equipment. Hence, one of the reasons why we insist on a minimum of two phones at the finish line. So, two to three phones at the finish line - that helps to get the accuracy up. But, really, it's all about the algorithms that sit in the background - on our mobile application - that does a lot of the calculations. Now, we're in the process of looking to do certain things with it. So, I'm not going to get too technical about it. Essentially, we spend almost a year perfecting algorithms to get that accuracy up. That's the real differentiating factor between-- well, without trying to promote Atlas too much-- it's one of our differentiating factors. It is our time-- I'm very, very confident about our timing, and accuracy. And I'm happy for anyone to come try and test it. We're happy for anyone else to do so.
Okay. Well, two things actually. In all of this, I just reminded myself that some people - maybe not many people, but some people - would not be 100% clear as to what passive and active RFID are. Just to clarify, passive is the bib where, basically, you have a disposable tag, and the antenna does all the emitting of the radio signals, and it picks up the passive tag, because the tag doesn't emit anything. Whereas, the active - which is closer to what the Bluetooth tag does - is the actual tag which emits radio waves that, also, the antenna can pick up. Basically, when we're talking passive, and we're comparing the accuracy of Bluetooth to a passive system, we're comparing it to the kind of system that most people would be familiar with - which is the antenna at the finish line, and the really simple almost like the little film tag that people put at the back of bibs with a little bit of foam, right?
Yeah, that's right. Indeed, we probably should have tackled this earlier, passive vs active RFID. Because it's not obvious to everyone. When I think about it, it's super clear in my mind because, technically speaking, from a physical properties perspective, they are very, very distinct. Passive RFID, as you say, has no battery involved, whereas active RFID does have a battery. So, when the athlete is running with an active RFID system, he's running with a battery on it. When the athlete is running with a passive RFID system, almost always, these days, it's behind a bib. A lot of people don't even know where it is. It's very thin. It's very light. It's very cost effective. I mean, just to be clear, RFID timing is excellent, right? It does a really, really good job - both passive and active. Active is more accurate in timing than passive, typically. With the best active RFID systems, you can get very, very decimal-point-accurate timing - more accurate than Bluetooth timing. So, our accuracy to give it some numbers is, in the region of 0.5 seconds accuracy. That's where we're at. We're comfortable with saying that. We're comfortable with promoting that. With passive RFID, it's roughly similar. So, sub-second accuracy, when all the equipment's working properly, and it's-- the people are using it correctly. With active RFID, which is used sometimes, for example, for cycling races where you need high accuracy indoors, for instance, or on a track, you can get down to 0.111 of a second.
How does the Bluetooth timing software work?
And actually - this is probably like a nice technical aside, but I think it's important when we're talking about accuracy, and you were mentioning earlier software and everything - I think quite a few people won't realize that, basically, what happens when you time something at the finish line, let's say, is that the tag is being picked up multiple times. Basically you have to have software to figure out when actually that tag crosses the finish line, because it's being read many times before the finish line, and after the finish line.
It's a very good point. I think for most people's understanding here, it's really the software that's doing the timing. The hardware is an enabler, as it is the case in most things. But it's really the software that's analyzing the multiple hundreds, even thousands, of times the transponder communicates with the reader at the finish line. Same case with Bluetooth timing. So, yes, it's really down to how good is your software. So, when you-- it's the same with a race timing company. When they're evaluating who they're going to buy the RFID equipment from, they're going to try and figure out how strong is their software reading at the finish line - both for detection rates, as well as accuracy. That's a big part of decision making. So, it should be with Bluetooth timing. You know, Bluetooth timing, same thing. The principles are quite similar.
Can a Bluetooth timing system provide live race results?
That's a good point to wrap up the whole technical Bluetooth/RFID comparison. One thing that people may be wondering about is-- in terms of all of the, sort of like, other stuff I get with timing, like live results - the ability to have, like, a result kiosk at the finish line, so people can just print out their time, all of that stuff - I guess that, sort of like, independent of the timing infrastructure itself, right? I can just add that on whatever I'm timing with, or is that not the case?
Not quite. I don't think if you've got live results-- live results used to be a premium feature. If you maybe go back a few years, a race director would have had to pay a little bit extra to have live results. Why the difference? Well, simply, one sits on the desktop - runs on an app on the desktop. The other one sits in the cloud. Live results means that everyone can share those results through a web browser, for example. Today, there's still some race timing equipment out there, that can't do that. The race timer comes to the race. He does the race timing. He then has to go home, upload the results separately from his laptop, to an internet connection, to be able to make the results "live". But that's the minority of cases now. So, it is still linked. Because there's redundancies in the systems-- so you need a redundancy, if you want to make it absolutely sure that there's no screw ups - in terms of the reading as they're crossing the finish line. For me, that's all about security of data - making sure that there is absolutely no way that you could be sat there all day long, and actually lose the data center. Yeah, that's a big differentiating factor there.
The future of Bluetooth timing
What would the future of Bluetooth timing look like? What should we expect from the technology, like, over the next two or three years?
Yeah. Bluetooth timing, I think is going to evolve in-- first of all, you're going to see it in more and more sports. That's the first thing I'm convinced of. In particular, sports that are a little bit tricky to do for people. You're going to see-- so I'll give you an example - sailing. So, nonprofessional dinghy sailing - you're going to see that coming. We're going to see Bluetooth timing spread its wings into different types of sports. It's already in some sports, but you're going to see it spread. I anticipate that you will see Bluetooth timing come into place where, today, there is no RFID tag. Here I'm talking about periphery countries that maybe can't afford it, or the infrastructure is not so good. So, we're going to see it in Africa. We're going to see it in Latin America. We're going to see it in parts of Asia. I think that's where you're going to see quite a bit of growth because, today, you've got very little infrastructure. From RFID equipment perspective, all those places I've mentioned, for any emerging races, it's simply too expensive. It's too-- you got to ship it all out there. It's cumbersome. There isn't enough of it to go out there. So, you can imagine, that's where you're going to see it really grow in those sorts of areas. In the future, it could very well be that, you may not need a pod. In the future, you may already have a device, which can be compatible with our software.
Would that be a phone?
Could be a phone. In fact, we already do it with phones. For instance, with our virtual live that I talked about that we have - the social distancing sort of permanent course thing - yes, we already use phones for that. But I'm talking about even other devices. For example, I'll just give you something on the top of my head. You know, the Whoop ring that people use to track their sleep, etc. Why not use one of those? If you're running with a Whoop ring, we could probably, in the future, just leverage your Whoop ring to get timing results.
Or a watch. But quite a few people have, I guess.
Or any other device. Yeah. Essentially, that's the direction, I think the Bluetooth timing will go. It will just become a little bit-- the French have a word - democratisation - the ability for everyone to be able to participate. That's where Bluetooth timing is going. It's going to give people the ability to do something, provide a professional level of timing service that's not possible for them, today, because of the cost. It was really about that.
How can I hire or buy a Bluetooth timing system?
Excellent. Well, I should thank you very, very much for all this. It's been extremely helpful in understanding where Bluetooth is, and where it's going. Now, tell me where can people-- how can people reach out to you and Atlas, in case they wanna explore either the DIY option, or if they are timers, getting a system in option with you guys? How do they reach out to you?
You can go to our website, www.AtlasLiveTracking.com. Type that in Google - you should find us. Or you could just go www.BluetoothTiming.com. It'll take you to the same place. That's the best way to get hold of us. Once you've got hold of us through the website, we're very, very happy and open. We're very happy to chat on WhatsApp or over the phone. We're very open. So yeah, please get in touch anytime. We'd be very happy to take it from there.
Excellent. And you guys are like-- your services are available in which countries right now?
Right now, we're available in Europe. We're also available in Asia, through Hong Kong. Principally, those areas. Yeah.
We have tons of US listeners. Is it coming to the US anytime soon?
The US market is altogether a huge market, all by itself. That's quite distinct from the markets that I'm very familiar with. As I said, we're in Europe or in Asia. We're looking into the US. It's certainly a very interesting market. I know a couple of the players there. There's so many very enthusiastic race directors over there, that's-- we're looking into it.
Excellent. Well, thanks again, Jean-Louis. That's been really, really interesting. Thanks a lot for your time.
Yeah. Thank you very much, Panos.
And thanks to the listeners for tuning in, and we'll see everyone next time.
I hope you enjoyed this episode on Bluetooth timing with Atlas Live Tracking Founder, Jean-Louis Lafayeedney.
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