New technology is funny. It doesn't really develop in measured steps. It lurches forward in fits and starts--sometimes hibernating for years until related developments help it achieve critical mass. Then, it can burst forth like broadband, Wi-Fi, VoIP or 3G cellular--all of which have built on the success of the others.
We've acquired fast wireless PC links, fast public internet access, new phone flexibility and broadband connectivity over wide areas in quick succession. The next big boom in wireless connectivity is very near--close enough for connections over something called ultra-wideband.
You might have heard about UWB several years ago when an IEEE oversight group began working on a common language for all UWB devices. That didn't turn out too well. But hundreds of component and device makers are pushing on anyway because UWB is uniquely qualified to wirelessly transfer big piles of electronic data over short distances.
Our PCs are connected. But most of the microprocessor-based devices we live with either don't talk to each other or communicate in monosyllables over wires. The first thing UWB can do is shrink that rat's nest of cables behind every desk and entertainment center. Some of us have been working on that for decades--a wireless mouse or keyboard here, a wireless headset there--with limited success.
At the same time, we keep collecting flat-panel TVs, digital video and DVD recorders, and various music players, video cameras and set-top boxes. Many of these devices sport multiple wired connections; all are begging to have their big media files shared with our PCs, printers and scanners. We've gotten a taste of wireless connectivity and want more: Witness our love affair with Wi-Fi networks, which would seem the logical choice to carry these types of shorter transmissions between devices.
"So why aren't they already doing it?" asks Bruce Watkins, president and COO of Carlsbad, California-based Pulse~Link , a pioneer in UWB technology. Because while Wi-Fi is great for computer files and even phone calls, its bandwidth limits and certain other operating characteristics make it less than ideal for streaming movies, music or games. That's where UWB solutions like Pulse~Link's CWave chipset come in. Its first iteration can stream media at speeds of 1GBPS--without the limitations of Wi-Fi.
How about a nice 50-inch plasma in your home office wirelessly receiving TV news, videoconferences, full-screen videos, tunes and podcasts with analog quality? How would you like to effortlessly blip a bundle of megabyte-size snaps from your digital camera to your PC--or even videos from your camcorder? What if every new device you brought within range of your UWB constellation connected itself?
UWB hops around to find the best radio bands for these transmissions, sometimes combining them. It's limited to much shorter distances than Wi-Fi. But UWB doesn't drain the batteries of mice, remotes and other small devices; it also offers a hundred times the bandwidth of other short-range protocols such as Bluetooth and infrared.
Not that UWB will necessarily replace those protocols, says Kirsten West, CEO of West Technology Research Solutions in Mountain View, California. Efficiency, cost and the installed base are also important when you're trying to match a protocol to a job, and UWB has properties that can augment Bluetooth, USB or even wired mediums.
Linking component devices in close proximity is one kind of UWB task (see " Get Yourself Connected ," below). But getting video signals to that plasma display on your office wall will take longer to accomplish. Pulse~Link is attacking the task by using pre-existing coaxial and Ethernet cables to stream high-bandwidth DVI and HDMI video across our homes and offices.
The Power of Babble
There are plenty of hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is that our 2,500 electronics companies often use slightly different electronic dialects in their 80,000 products. The IEEE 802.15.3a task group was formed to hammer out a common lingo for them. But after three years, its members decided to disband and let the market sort it out instead.
A side note: Just in case you ever find yourself in a Beauty and the Geek elimination round, one major faction in the debate, the UWB Forum, is promoting Direct Sequence--UWB, or DS--UWB. It's opposed by the WiMedia Alliance, whose brand of geeko-jumbo is called MultiBand Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or MB-OFDM. The difference between the two? It's irrelevant to anyone but faction members. Technology can be a little like sausage casings: Sometimes it's better not to know what's inside.
And unless you're a UWB stakeholder, you don't really need to know, says West. You won't have to make a Windows vs. Mac decision when it's time to buy. Sure, you'd like all your devices to interoperate. But the reality of how UWB will evolve is that you'll have plenty of time to wear out your UWB v.1 hardware before you have to fret over your UWB v.2 purchases. About 2 million UWB devices will ship this year, says West, growing to 100 million in only four years. What are the odds that the thousandth device shipped will be around long enough to need compatibility with the millionth?
The truth is that technologies turn over so quickly today, we really don't have any choice but to think of them as disposable. UWB is a good place to try out a new purchasing paradigm in the 21st century: Get it early, use it up, then stow it in the spare bedroom when you trade up to the newer, better, cheaper version.
Get Yourself Connected
The flexibility of wireless UWB will be felt first in your home office. For example, any PC or laptop with one of Gefen's $349 (all prices street) Wireless USB Extenders--small radio dongles--will achieve instant wireless connectivity when another dongle-equipped device comes within 30 feet of it.
Likewise, four printers, scanners or other USB 2.0 devices can be plugged in to Belkin's $129 CableFree USB Hub at one end of a room. A PC or laptop with a Belkin dongle in a USB 2.0 port can seamlessly connect to all of them from the other side of the room.