Peering into the Aether
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Aug 23 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Three things are needed: better hardware, more compelling applications, and better, faster, cheaper networks.

Physicists in the 19th century had trouble explaining how heat and light from the sun were able to travel though millions of miles of vacuum to reach the earth. After all, sound waves needed a medium, such as air, to propagate. Why shouldn't electromagnetic radiation also require a similar medium, they reasoned? They decided that there must be something in the great vacuum of space that carried light waves from the heavens to our planet. They called this undetectable, weightless, invisible, frictionless substance aether. And for a good century, the aether theory held sway, until it was wiped out by Einstein's special theory of relativity in 1905, which made the idea of aether totally unnecessary.

But when I use one of my wireless gadgets - an email pager, a mobile phone, a wireless Internet-enabled PDA - I can't help but imagine myself soaking in an invisible aether soup of data bubbling all around me. Each of my gadgets is like a sieve that I use to scoop bits out of the aether to process and fling back into the churning fray.

At this point in time, mid-2001, my aether implements are instruments that are crude and slow. When I want to look at a web site on my PDA, the following messages are displayed on my screen, one at a time:

Signing On...

Dropouts, system crashes, service holes, inexplicable slowdowns, and incompatibility issues occur frequently. As often as not, the PDA browser will stop working before it finishes going through this ridiculously long sequence of steps. And when it finally does work, I get to watch an animated clock tick away - while the page is rendered on the color screen at 9600 baud. Speaking of the color screen, it's impossible to read in bright sunlight, and it sucks the batteries dry faster than my daughter's remote controlled toy robot.

Meanwhile, I'm paying plenty to use this Wireless Web service. In addition to my regular mobile phone charges, I have to pay an additional fifteen cents per minute to access the Internet on my PDA. European wireless network users have it worse. In a desperate attempt to recoup their $157 billion investment in 3G infrastructure, GPRS pricing models are absurdly high.

A recent Yankee group report says that some carriers charge $4,600 for a 100 Mb of data per month. Even at the average cost of $214 per 100Mb per month it means few people are going to be able to freely use the service.

As an unrepentant gadget lover, I can deal with the annoying glitches and high price tag that comes with being an early adopter. I like high tech devices as an end to themselves. I like pushing buttons and downloading new applications. I like to see if the things work in elevators and tunnels and coffee shops. I like to push their capabilities beyond their limits, to find their breaking point. But that's just me, and several thousand gizmo geeks around the world. To everyone else - i.e., the people who just want to use these devices as a way to be more productive - the bugs and bank-account draining fees are enough of a turn off to keep them from buying a wireless device.

So what is it going to take to get us from here - Nerdland - to there - Ubiquityville? Three things: better hardware, more compelling applications, and better, faster, cheaper networks.

Networks in the Aether

Let's look at networks first. Depending on where you are in the world, you could find yourself needing to tap into one of the many different wireless networks bouncing around in the aether. For extremely close-up interactions with other devices, infrared is ideal. The transceivers are dirt cheap (they're used in TV remote controls), and companies like WideRay are adding infrared beaming stations to airports and shopping centers.

A little farther out, in the range of 30 feet or so, there's Bluetooth, which promises to have all your personal devices chattering away to each other throughout the day. When your phone rings and it's in your briefcase, your personal Bluetooth network will activate your wireless earbud so you can answer the call without fishing out your phone.

Beyond that, there's the wireless ethernet protocol, known as Wi-Fi, which offers faster than wired-ethernet connectivity to local area networks. As I wrote in my recent article about Wi-Fi (WayPort Goes Widespread, July 26, 2001), Wi-Fi offers high-speed hotspots for travelers at airports, hotels, and convention centers. Cahners' In-Stat Group research foresees 10 million Wi-Fi enabled devices by the end of 2001, and Dell and Apple portable computers are now shipping with Wi-Fi transceivers built-into them.

Then there are the wireless telecommunication networks, like 3G that will lead the way to rich media like streaming video. Finally, there's the Global Positioning System (GPS for short), a navigation and location-sensing network consisting of 24 satellites churning through the ether 11,000 miles above the earth, which use atomic clocks to pinpoint the location of any GPS device anywhere on earth to a range of 100 yards or so (or down to just a few feet when a ground based antennae is used to correct the error.)

It's likely that some of these wireless networks will die before they reach critical mass - look at the sad demise of Metricom, which had recently rolled out their excellent 128kbps wireless network. And Bluetooth's days could be numbered, the victim of standards that are impeding innovation. Even the much lauded 802.11b Wi-Fi has serious security problems that need to be corrected before it will be taken seriously. Fortunately, competition in the Wi-Fi world is intense and we'll soon see faster, more secure networks. The companies developing the new versions of Wi-Fi even promise that power consumption will be reduced, which brings me to the next subject.


The ideal wireless mobile device would contain all of the transceivers necessary to access any network, and still be small enough to fit in your pocket. Integrating everything into a compact device isn't an insurmountable problem. The bigger challenge is figuring out a way to power the transceivers without draining the batteries. Most color-screen PDAs can go for about six hours before their lithium-ion batteries need recharging. But if you use a Wi-Fi module, their lifespan drops to just two hours. That's not acceptable. I have to pack at least four AC power adapter/recharges with me, when I travel. I want batteries that can give me at least a week of always-on usage.

Several companies are working on fuel cells that will have a lifespan of least ten times that of regular lithium ion batteries. Manhattan Scientifics, located in Los Alamos, NM, has developed a microfuel cell that runs on clean-burning methanol and water (similar to a car's anti-freeze solution.) Sort of like an engine without moving parts, fuel cells use liquid fuel to produce electricity. When the cell runs dry, you simply fill up the fuel cell's tank by giving it a squirt from a syringe. Fuel cells could start becoming standard equipment on laptops and PDAs in three to four years.

Even farther out - and certainly more far-out - than fuel cells is the idea of using tiny turbines to generate electricity. MIT has been working on a button-sized power plant with 50 times the energy by weight of a standard battery. Its tiny rotor spins at 2 million rpm (which creates a whirring sound that's too fast to be heard by the human ear), creating a power source that could keep a laptop computer running for months on end. And if it runs out of fuel while you're in the middle of a flight, just ask the flight attendant for one of those little bottles of vodka, pour it in the turbine's fuel tank, and you're good to go.

Similarly, at the University of California Berkeley, mechanical engineering professor Carlos Fernandez-Pello has built the world's smallest rotary internal combustion engine. Made of steel, the thimble-sized engine can keep a bicycle headlamp running for two hours on an ounce-and-a-half of fuel. Fernandez-Pello and his team are working on a new engine that will fit in a mobile phone and run for twenty hours between fill-ups. Their ultimate goal is to make an engine the size of the letter "o". And if you're reading this on a mobile device, you might have to squint to see it, which is what the next section is about - displays and legibility.


Screen legibility on mobile devices is a big problem. But not for long, because a solution is in the works. It's called the organic light emitting diode (OLED for short), and it has already found its way into stereo components and some mobile phones. OLED screens are superior to the kind of screen you have on your mobile device now (the standard liquid crystal display known as an LCD).

OLEDs are self-luminous, so they don't require backlighting. Not only does that eliminate the need to use a heavy, toxic mercury lamp, it also makes the display thinner and lighter. The viewing angle for OLEDs is much better than LCDs. They consume less power. Best of all, the picture quality is incredible.

When a 5.5-inch OLED color display was displayed last year at the Society for Information Display conference, attendees were blown away by its clarity and vibrance. As soon as researchers figure out how to widen the temperature range under which OLEDs can work, and when manufacturing methods are introduced to lower cost, you can expect to see the LCD go the way of the desktop dot-matrix printer.

Deeper in the crystal ball

Up till know, I've been talking about technology that could goose the evolution of mobile devices as we know them today. But what about truly revolutionary ideas that shatter our concept of what a mobile device is? Consider the project Kris Pister, a robotics professor, at UC Berkeley, is working on: speck-sized electronic circuits call "smart dust" that contain their own power supplies (solar and battery), sensory circuits, and wireless transceivers.

The idea is to get thousands of them build, creating a "cloud" of smart dust particles that can communicate to each other, and set the cloud free to tackle a specific task - weather prediction, surveillance, medical monitoring, environmental testing. Last year, Pister made some smart dust particles the size of aspirin tablets. Now they're down to one millimeter in diameter (less than the thickness of two US pennies).

Eventually, they'll be so small that they'll disappear into the aether itself.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.