CES Big Picture #3: Oh ye cable, R.I.P. Wireless cometh and take ye away

It's now going on two weeks since CES has ended and so far, I've posted two big picture pieces; one on when size stopped mattering and the other on how Hi-Definition's virtuous circle is finally complete. Last week, I was at Mashup Camp 3 at MIT so I held off on publishing any more big picture pieces until this week.

It's now going on two weeks since CES has ended and so far, I've posted two big picture pieces; one on when size stopped mattering and the other on how Hi-Definition's virtuous circle is finally complete. Last week, I was at Mashup Camp 3 at MIT so I held off on publishing any more big picture pieces until this week. That said, there were other big pictures emerging from CES that will mark 2007 as the tipping point in some categories and one of those categories (with a few subcategories) was wireless.

First, I must admit to being something of an audiophile. I'm not sure when one becomes an official card carrying member of the Audiophile Club, but perhaps several miles of monster cable running through the walls of my house at a personal expense of thousands of dollars (most of it in labor) qualifies me. See photo below:

Three years ago, with a centralized audio/vidoe system that serviced every room in my house in mind, I ran that cable through the walls (including a bunch of Cat 5 for hardwired Ethernet) because of my experience-to-date with wireless technologies. Yes, they were good. But flawless? No. I could tolerate the occasional hiccup in my 2.4 Ghz WiFi net (thank you Mr. Microwave and cordless phone). But, if there was one place where the occasional flaw wouldn't do, it was with my home audio and video setup.  Actually, the human brain can manage a few frames of dropped video. But bad audio is known to cause insanity. Thus wires.

Fast forward.

Monster Cable R.I.P. thanks to Ultra-Wideband 

It's CES 2007 and the demonstrations of wireless audio and video that I'm getting have me pretty well-convinced that you could be wasting your money if today, you made the same investment I made three years ago. I'm talking about the reliable wireless transmission of true high definition video as well as the reliable wireless transmission of great audio thanks to Ultra Wide Band (UWB) wireless technology. At CES, I saw demonstrations of both from companies that don't make the products we'd buy, but rather the technologies that go into those products. The prototypes were practically alligator clipped together, but they were both working, and convincing.  More importantly, I learned something else that never occured to me before. UWB-radios actually take less battery power than their slower counterparts (such as plain vanilla Bluetooth). That's because UWB's higher-bandwidth means that more data can pass through the air during any given transmission which in turn means fewer overall transmissions to move a complete package of data from transmitter to receiver (and correspondingly, less overall power consumption).

UWB is therefore an enabling technology that I fully expect to rock our world's in 2007. Not just in wireless audio/video, but also in most other close range wireless apps.

2007 to be tipping point for Near Field Communications

Also on the close range front, making a huge splash at CES is a wireless technology known as Near Field Communications or NFC. This is a super short-range communication technology that is the enabling technology behind (a) contactless payments with credit cards and (b) the substitution of a cell phone for a credit card (with the latter option being the wave of the future). If you watched one of the football games over the weekend, then perhaps you saw an advertisement for MasterCard where a credit card was simply waved in front of some device that illuminated (indicating some transaction just took place). That's NFC in action.

At CES, not only was Visa was demonstrating NFC in action, it was showing how an NFC-enabled phone can be turned into what is best described as an interactive credit card. Not only can the phone make payments the same way the credit card can (both your card issuer and wireless carrier have to support such a service), other credit-card related applications can be provisioned to the phone to enhance the "credit card" experience. For example, balance checking, electronic funds transfer (for bill payment), and electronic couponing where a coupon is wirelessly transmitted to a phone, the coupon's bar code is displayed on phone's screen, and the cashier waves that bar-code over the bar-code reader at the point of sale.

The deal-closer on NFC and contactless payments with cell phones was Nokia's announcement of the first NFC-enabled cell phone. Provided that my card issuer (Chase Manhattan) and my wireless provider (Verizon Wireless) supported the service, NFC-enablement is enough affect what cell phone I would buy. Even better, the upgrade on the merchant side in order to take a contactless payment is only about $300 per register (and no additional service fees from Visa).

'07 is NFC's year (double-entendre bonus: maybe in the Super Bowl too).

Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephony (DECT) here to stay

OK. So you're tired of the crappy connections and dropped calls you've experienced with whatever cordless phones you've been using over the years? Enter Digital Enhanced Cordless Telephony aka DECT; a cordless telephony specification with the backing of a multi-vendor consortium (here's the DECT Forum's Web site). If all goes acccording to plan, that array of 2.4, 5 and whatever other Ghz-wireless cordless phone classifications you see amongst the dizzying array of offerings at your local Staples should go away. Taking its place will be a bumper crop of DECT-enabled phones that manufacturers say will be more reliable over greater distances.  Proving there's no time to lose in rolling product out, not only are DECT-enabled devices taking the market by storm, many of them are enabled for VoIP. For example, a cordless Skype-phone may talk to its base station (which in turn has a wired or wireless LAN connection) via DECT.  Or, via DECT, another cordless Skype-phone may talk to a dongle that's inserted into the USB port of a PC running the Skype client.

And you thought you needed copper for power.  Think again.

While CES 2007 may not have been the tipping point for wireless power, it's definitely where the breakthrough made its major debut. It was also, unfortunately, the one disruptive technology that I didn't have time to see (and now I'm wishing I made the time).  Fortunately, other journalists saw the wisdom in prioritizing a wireless power demo.  One of them was the Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro who, regarding his CES experience, wrote:

Powercast, of Ligonier, Pa., had an exhibit tucked away in a Philips exhibit hall of its technology, which can beam electrical power to devices three feet away. To recharge over the air, a device needs a tiny circuit board, about the size of a pinky toenail, that should only cost a few dollars.

The eCoupled system developed by Fulton Innovation of Ada, Mich., is more plugless than wireless. It flows power into any compatible device touching a charging surface -- a phone left on a car's armrest, a smart phone dropped on a cradle, a kitchen appliance on the counter. The company says the first eCoupled-compatible products should arrive in 2007.

In fact, CNET's editors were so impressed with the Powercast demo that it won the Best of CES Award in the category of Emerging Technology.

For years now, wireless technologies have in many ways been one of our killer applications. So, it almost feels silly to say something like 2007 will mark a new dawn for wireless technologies. But, given what was demonstrated at CES, I'm not quite sure how else to put it.