A new Wi-Fi spec will help smart homes run like clockwork

Wi-Fi Certified TimeSync will help vendors synchronize connected devices for audio, video and more

Wi-Fi is an obvious candidate for connecting almost any device that can be plugged into a wall, because it’s already running in nearly every home that has broadband. But can all those products work in lockstep when timing matters, like while video and audio are streaming on several devices?

The Wi-Fi Alliance says it has a way to make sure they do. On Thursday at CES, the industry group announced Wi-Fi Certified TimeSync, a specification for precise time synchronization among Wi-Fi devices. It’s expected to be available in the middle of this year.

When Wi-Fi began as a wireless way to send packets of data between computers, synchronized clocks didn’t matter. When the packets arrived, the screen appeared or the page was printed. But now that Wi-Fi has a growing role in home entertainment, timing matters.

For example, separate speakers on opposite sides of a room can help create an immersive stereo sound, and Wi-Fi may be a convenient way to connect them. But if they can’t play in sync, there’s no point using them. Things could also be tricky with a home theater that includes a TV, a subwoofer and several other speakers.

Wi-Fi Certified TimeSync is designed to ensure that the clocks on different devices are synchronized down to less than a microsecond. Then each component can carry out its role at the right time.

But TimeSync won’t automatically synchronize the clocks on every device that’s certified. Instead, it will be a common tool vendors and industry groups can use to make devices synchronize, said Kevin Robinson, the Alliance’s vice president of marketing. If several vendors want to make their Wi-Fi gear work together on a timing-dependent application, they can use TimeSync to do it.

In addition to audio playback, TimeSync can help with things like making multiple video screens in a vehicle play video together, and it has other applications in industry, health care and IoT, the Alliance says.

One thing it won’t solve is the delay between sending an IoT command, like tapping a smartphone app to turn on a light, and seeing that light turn on, Robinson said. When those delays happen, they’re not caused by clock settings.

Mismatched audio or video playback is annoying enough to keep consumers from buying new, connected entertainment gear, said Jessica Groopman, an industry analyst at Tractica. For the general public to start buying them, connected devices will have to work better, not worse, than the equipment they have now, she said.

In other areas, synchronized clocks may be even more important as Wi-Fi plays a growing role, Robinson said. For example, some manufacturing processes require several pieces of equipment to carry out tasks in perfect alignment. In health care, different sensors on a patient have to collect time-synchronized data so doctors can relate one event to another.

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