By Jonathan Sidener
Copley News Service
Soon, your refrigerator magnet might warn you when peak electricity rates kick in, allowing you to turn off a power-hungry pool pump or air conditioner. A new wireless technology called ZigBee, designed by San Diego-based Talon Communications, draws information from smart electric meters and displays rate warnings on simple items such as refrigerator magnets.
ZigBee is just one of several wireless technologies emerging from laboratories as engineers link sensors, gadgets and everyday objects over the airwaves in what’s being called the third revolution of modern electronics.
Wireless hit the mainstream about four years ago when Wi-Fi and Bluetooth became widely used to connect us to cell phones and the Internet. Suddenly coffee shops, airports and living rooms turned into Wi-Fi hot spots and cell phone users morphed into walking cyborgs with earpieces.
The coming wave of wireless technology systems – with names such as ultra wideband, Wibree and WiMax – could find a home in light switches and light bulbs, blood-pressure monitors, wristwatches and flat-panel televisions. One day, wireless items will be as common as the personal computers and Internet from the earlier revolutions.
A stand-alone wireless technology is limited in the innovation it causes. An inexpensive ZigBee network could be set up to turn off all the lights in a home when the master bedroom light is turned off at night, for example.
But as simple wireless networks are linked to the Internet – and ultimately to powerful computers and software – their potential impact increases.
If the ZigBee network links to an Internet-enabled electric meter, your lights and air conditioning could be controlled from any Internet connection on any continent. If a sudden storm hit while you were at work, you could turn off your automated sprinkler system to conserve water.
Ramesh Rao, director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology at University of California San Diego, expects dramatic changes as short-range wireless technologies link previously offline portions of our lives to the Internet.
“If you add a short-range wireless technology, such as ZigBee or Bluetooth, to a health-monitoring device, it can connect to a cell phone and the cell phone can send the information to the doctor,” Rao said. “Instead of taking a snapshot of the condition of your heart when you visit the doctor, you would have much more meaningful information taken over a long period of time.”
San Diego-based Qualcomm, its partners and a host of competitors are working on the first versions of wireless medical systems.
The system Rao envisions would require advances in software to monitor constant streams of data and to alert the doctor when something abnormal is detected.
“Everyone is concerned about the rising cost of health care,” said technology writer and futurist Jack Uldrich, who lives in Minnesota.
Doctors could eliminate unnecessary patient visits – or know when patients need immediate attention – if they had more complete and timely information, Uldrich said.
The wireless revolution will be fast-tracked by several technologies:
– Ultra wideband, or UWB, comes in several versions, all of which can move large files or data streams very quickly over a short distance. It could replace the mess of wires behind home entertainment centers or the wires that connect computers with printers, cameras, keyboards and other peripherals. The first UWB consumer products were announced at the annual Consumer Electronics Show a few weeks ago in Las Vegas.
– Wibree, essentially a streamlined version of Bluetooth, uses smaller chips and runs on smaller batteries, so it can be hidden in something the size of a wristwatch. It can, for example, enable a watch to display caller ID information from your nearby cell phone. Wibree products are more than a year away from market, though manufacturers might produce the first chips this year.
– WiMax, sort of Wi-Fi on steroids, creates Internet hot spots that can be measured in miles instead of feet. Sprint is testing its new WiMax network and plans to offer the service soon to consumers in Chicago, Washington and Baltimore.
– ZigBee technology is on track to have a breakout year in 2008, with utilities in several states planning tests. It’s a low-power system that sends small amounts of data for a variety of home and industrial networking applications. Southern California Edison is pushing forward with the technology. San Diego Gas & Electric is looking at ZigBee but has not decided whether to pursue it.
Most consumers will likely have their first contact with these new technologies through a ZigBee gadget from an electric company, said Kobus Marneweck, Texas Instruments’ general manager for low-power wireless software. He heads a team of about 20 people writing software for wireless devices.
ZigBee is an easy addition to the smart electricity meters that utilities are installing to eliminate the need for meter readers. The meters send usage information to the utility and pass along real-time rate information to the customer through the ZigBee magnet.
Utilities could go beyond refrigerator magnets to add ZigBee controls to pool pumps and other nonessential appliances, allowing the utility to remotely turn off those devices during a power crunch.
“A resident could use the Internet, through the intelligent electric meter, to control appliances in the home,” said Scott McDermaid, chief technology officer at Talon Communications. “It would be an additional service, having nothing to do with providing electricity, that utilities could offer to their customers.”
Extending a ZigBee network throughout a house could be as simple as screwing in ZigBee-enabled light bulbs to automate a lamp or fixture, according to Talon.
“You can’t go to Home Depot and find a shelf full of ZigBee products yet,” Marneweck said. But before long, products such as automated window blinds and thermostats will be available to retrofit homes without expensive wire, he said.
ZigBee is not the only short-range wireless technology in the works. Nokia started development of a system with an equally quirky name, Wibree, and then handed the technology over to the Bluetooth industry consortium. As part of Bluetooth’s open-standard protocol, any manufacturer can use Wibree in its products.
ZigBee and Wibree conserve power by sending small amounts of digital information a short distance. At the other end of the spectrum, WiMax technology blasts huge data files over long distances.
WiMax was conceived as an alternative to DSL and cable Internet, linking transmitters on towers to homes. But a mobile version, bringing the Internet to laptops and cell phones away from home, is driving the technology today.
“There’s a new generation of mobile 2.0 users who are very multimedia-centric,” said Roy Berger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Next Wave Wireless, which has 250 engineers working on WiMax and other wireless technologies.
At least two San Diego companies are developing UWB products. Pulse Link is focusing on sending large files – such as high-definition video – throughout a home. Staccato Communications is taking ultra wideband in a different direction by developing wireless replacements for the gaggle of USB wires linked to a computer.
Pulse Link targets the cable – called HDMI – that delivers digital audio and high-definition video to a home theater system. Pulse Link’s wireless HDMI can send a signal to a flat-panel TV hanging on a wall, without the need for a visible cable or the expense of hiding the cable behind a wall.
“Today, if you look behind any entertainment center, you’ll see a rat’s nest of wires,” said Pulse-Link’s co-founder and president, Bruce Watkins. “UWB has the potential to eliminate all of those except the power cord.”
The company recently announced its first consumer product, a UWB chip in a Westinghouse TV.
Staccato’s founder and chief technical officer, Roberto Aiello, said wireless USB products from his company and from competitors should hit stores this year.
“There’s been an explosion in the storage of media on personal devices such as cameras and iPods,” said Aiello. “UWB is ideal for sharing or transferring the pictures, music and video on these devices.
“A wireless USB camera could make it easier to send the photos to a PC or directly to a TV. As a first step, it could replace the cable between a PC and printer. At the next step, it could print wirelessly, directly from the camera.”
As with most technologies, UWB’s full potential is likely to be found after the first applications reach the market, Aiello said.
“The killer applications are always found after the fact,” he said. “This is a brave new world, a new market. It’s really exciting.”