5 more tech breakthroughs: Innovations in access, power and control

Nanogenerators, self-healing batteries and brain-computing interfaces may sound like science fiction, but they're not.

This is the second half of a two-part series on technology breakthroughs that have the potential to change computing. Last week, we looked at five chip-level innovations that will make electronic devices faster, more powerful, more flexible and less expensive to manufacture. This week, we explore advances in how we access the Net, how we power our devices and how we interact with them.

From over-the-air power to neural computer control, each of these technologies has the ability to fundamentally alter the digital landscape. Put them together with the circuit advances we discussed last week, and you get a revolution in the way computers and electronics are designed, manufactured and used.

Extreme wireless: Multi-gigabit Wi-Fi

As great as it is to be able to grab data out of thin air, Wi-Fi is basically 1990s technology that's been jazzed up several times. "We want to take Wi-Fi truly into the 21st century," says Ali Sadri, president and chairman of the Wireless Gigabit Alliance. This consortium of tech companies has developed a specification known as WiGig (download PDF) that supports wireless communications at multi-gigabit speeds.

"With the emphasis on high-definition video, usage of the Web is changing," notes Sadri, who is also marketing director for Intel's wireless group. "Unfortunately, Wi-Fi hasn't kept up. Faster is always better."

Wi-Fi depends on the IEEE's 802.11 family of standards. 802.11a equipment, introduced in 1999, operates on the 5GHz radio band, while later 802.11b and g devices use the crowded 2.4GHz band. The most current dual-band 802.11n gear can operate on either band. Each 802.11 update has increased Wi-Fi's speed incrementally.

WiGig adds the 60GHz transmission band to the mix. With much more available spectrum than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, the 60GHz band allows significantly faster throughput. (See Network World's informative video "How 60GHz will affect Wi-Fi" by Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias for details.) WiGig can operate at up to 7Gbps, more than an order of magnitude faster than today's 802.11n Wi-Fi, which can operate at up to 600Mbps.

Ali Sadri from WiGig Alliance
The WiGig Alliance's Ali Sadri: "Faster is always better."

In other words, WiGig delivers true multi-gigabit throughput -- enough to transmit an entire HD movie in a matter of seconds or smoothly stream it to a viewer. It also offers enough bandwidth to satisfy households with several data-hungry users connected at once -- such as a young child playing an online game in the den, a parent downloading a video-heavy work presentation in the kitchen and a teenager video-chatting with her boyfriend in the dining room.

WiGig could also be used to connect computers to peripherals, such as HD monitors or network hard drives, without a cable in sight. The new wireless spec is also compatible with current Wi-Fi devices.

Enhancing WiGig's speed is a cool trick called beam-forming. Unlike most wireless data systems, WiGig's signal doesn't spread out in a sphere, with most of it wasted. WiGig is smart enough to adjust the antenna parameters at both the sender and receiver to create a focused beam of data for a direct link that has minimal interference. Beam-forming technology is already being used in some Wi-Fi products, but unlike other Wi-Fi standards, WiGig actually relies on it.

"Beam-forming technology is very cool," says David Seiler, chief of the Semiconductor Electronics Division at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). "It's what makes high-speed wireless like WiGig possible, and it will be used in a lot of other areas." Because WiGig is based on the same 802.11 specs as Wi-Fi, this technique can "extend the usefulness of Wi-Fi by five to 10 years," he adds.

WiGig illustration
The WiGig spec creates a focused beam rather than spreading out the signal as most wireless technologies do.

There is a downside, though: WiGig's top speed has a range of only 45 feet. This will be a problem for home users who want to, say, connect a TV in the bedroom with a router in the basement, or for a business that wants to connect all of the employees in a small office wirelessly.

Sadri mentions two different ways to overcome WiGig's range limitation, neither of which is perfect. One possibility is to set up personal area networks (PAN) for each room or section of a home or office. That way, each PAN segment could pass along the data to the segment in the next room or section, although latency would increase each time the signal is relayed.

The other approach is a little more old-fashioned and involves installing gigabit Ethernet cables as a backbone for several WiGig transmitters placed in strategic locations throughout the building -- a solution that's likely more feasible for small businesses than it would be for home users because it requires running cables behind walls.

And, of course, WiGig will require a new generation of Wi-Fi routers and receivers that use the 60GHz transmission band. Armed with tri-band radios, these devices will also be able to operate on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for interoperability with today's Wi-Fi equipment.

By the end of the year, Sadri expects four semiconductor companies, which he declined to name, to produce samples of WiGig's reference design chip for a new generation of wireless electronics. The needed chips should be in full production in 2012, he says.

By 2013, WiGig devices could be in TVs, computers, phones, tablets and other electronics, and eventually "a few uses we can't even imagine today," says Sadri.

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