With a wave of his hand over a homemade receiver, Georgia Tech professor Joy Laskar shows how easily–and quickly–large data files could someday be transferred from a portable media player to a computer or TV.

Poof! “You just moved a movie onto your device,” Laskar says.

While Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have emerged as efficient ways to zap small amounts of data between gadgets, neither is well suited for quickly transferring high-definition video, large audio libraries, and other massive files.

Laskar and other scientists at the Georgia Electronic Design Center have turned to extremely high radio frequencies to transfer huge data files over short distances.

The high frequencies–which use the 60-gigahertz band–have been a mostly untapped resource. Researchers say it could one day become the conventional wireless way to send data over short distances.

Laskar hopes it could soon become a rival to other wireless technologies. Getting government permission to use the spectrum would not be a problem, since that radio band, much like the one used for Wi-Fi, is unlicensed. Because the range will likely be less than 33 feet, interference is less likely and transmissions could be more secure.

A similar short-range technology, known as ultra-wideband (UWB), is just now reaching the market after several years of wrangling between different companies and engineering bodies. (See “New wireless technologies make waves”.) It exploits another unlicensed band, reaching up to 10.3 GHz. Last month, Toshiba Corp. introduced laptops with built-in UWB chips that can communicate wirelessly with a docking station. Other possible uses include transmission of high-definition video.

But the maximum current speed of UWB is about 480 megabits per second, equivalent to a high-speed computer cable but possibly not enough for all applications. Use of the 60 GHz band promises much higher speeds.

“There will be a constant pressure for speed and it will never cease,” said M. Kursat Kimyacioglu, director of strategy and wireless business development at the semiconductor subsidiary of Philips Electronics NV. “We need much faster wireless data networking technologies to make much faster downloads and backups and higher-resolution HD video streaming possible.”

He said Philips is looking at using the technology to eliminate cable bundles, but much more research will be needed. The signals don’t penetrate walls very well and are too easily disturbed by passing people and pets, Kimyacioglu said.

The research is far from over, Laskar said, but he hopes those challenges can be overcome in the next year or so. If so, the hardware for transferring files could be available by 2009, and new TV sets could be built with the chips the next year.

The center has already achieved wireless data-transfer rates of 15 gigabits per second from a span of 1 meter. That would mean a download time of less than five seconds for a DVD-quality copy of The Matrix or other Hollywood movies.

Specialized radios have been sending and receiving high-frequency signals for years, but they’re big and can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The Georgia center’s challenge has been to convert these devices into tiny chips that can be slipped directly into phones and computers. To be competitive with other technologies, Laskar has set his sights on a $5 chip, and so far his researchers have hammered together a few prototypes to show off the technology.

“We don’t want to replace these guys,” says Laskar, pointing at an HD receiver and TV set. “We want to complement them.”

A cheap chip would launch a new round of competition for the technology, said Anh-Vu Pham, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“The technology is there, it just requires a little more work,” he said. “If the radio can be deployed, you’ll have a lot of applications–from HD-TV to flash drives–without using any type of cable. Once you solve that problem, you open up so many applications.”

The technology could get a big boost if the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a top international association of electrical engineers, decides to create a standard for the spectrum. The group is weighing the decision now and could decide by next year.

“You’re talking about moving gigabits in seconds, your whole iPod library, your whole video library,” said Laskar. “This has the potential of becoming the de facto way of moving this information on and off the devices.”


Georgia Electronic Design Center