Last week, ZDNet UK visited Bell Labs' research and development facilities in Villarceaux, France, to find out what the legendary organisation — now owned by Alcatel-Lucent — is working on now.
Bell Labs is currently undertaking a major green push, as evidenced by its steering of the Green Touch project, which aims to create a new architecture in the next five years that reduces the power consumption of telecoms networks a thousandfold. As part of that push, the company is also working on the powering of mobile masts by combining wind and solar power.
The setup pictured above is similar to one currently being trialled by Bell Labs and Vodafone in Qatar. According to Frédéric Wauquiez, Bell Labs' marketing manager for 'eco-sustainable wireless solutions', it makes sense to combine the two alternative energy technologies because they complement each other.
"The sun is very predictable, but not very efficient. A wind turbine is much more efficient — when it turns," Wauquiez said, adding that the use of green energy sources could make a big difference in emerging markets, where the vast majority of base stations are powered by diesel.
The Bell Labs team have worked with the British company PowerOasis on a smart energy controller for the system. "Monitoring is very important," Wauquiez said, explaining that the charge of the system's batteries has to be carefully monitored to ensure consistent power supply and prolong battery life.
According to Wauquiez, a wind turbine can be installed on top of an existing telecom mast, with reinforcement if needed. The advantage of this approach is that mobile masts are about twice as tall as those used for most small wind turbines, making them more efficient.
"We are making the link between the alternative energy movement and telecoms," Wauquiez said. "Power energy suppliers cannot do that because they don't know telecoms. Pure telecoms people have other things to do."
Augmented reality is another area of interest for Bell Labs.
The system pictured above, called Dekaps, is being developed by the labs. It displays information associated with the image picked up by a smartphone's camera or uses the orientation of the phone itself to identify tagged things nearby and show information about them. As with other augmented reality systems such as Layar, Dekaps can provide not only location-based information but also a virtual layer of information based on the recognition of an image.
In this picture, a user is training an iPhone's camera on a picture that is recognised by Dekaps, which then overlays a dancing animated robot. This technology could be used to enhance printed advertising.
This prototype optical coupling, which is the interface between the fibre-optic cable and the circuitry, can transmit data at 100Gbps. According to Bell Labs researcher Jean Godin, the same technology could lead to transmissions of 400Gbps over "hundreds of kilometres".
Bell Labs is working on what it calls 'small cells'. Such cells are derived from femtocell technology, which offloads 3G data onto a fixed network so as to reduce the strain on the mobile network.
Small cells would be deployed in high density, along with a new protocol called Not-Mobile IP (NMIP) that is designed to simplify the network. NMIP links terminals such as mobile phones directly with servers, cutting out the need for tunnelling and reducing the network itself to simple switches. In this demonstration, video streaming was maintained despite simulated handover between IP addresses.
Bell Labs is working on new ways of detecting botnets by studying network behaviour.
The research is based on the idea that antivirus protection can be bypassed or disabled, and that firewalls cannot stop use of the HTTP and DNS protocols. Given this, the researchers are trying to characterise the behaviour of botnet-related DNS traffic in particular, so as to make it easier to identify infected machines.
The S-Book is a joint project between Bell Labs, Cambridge University Press and Abilene Christian University in Texas.
The idea is to combine social networking with e-books. As shown in this shot of an S-Book on an iPad, students would be able to see who of their classmates is reading the same page and who has annotated certain paragraphs. They could then join in a virtual discussion about the meaning of certain extracts.
Bell Labs is working on several projects related to the 'internet of things', where everyday objects are imbued with connectivity.
In one demonstration, researcher Benoit Christophe showed how an elderly woman's lamp and telephone could be networked together to overcome her degraded hearing. Using a smartphone app, a relative could make the lamp flash on and off when they call the woman, so she can see as well as hear when the call is incoming.
Tom Marzetta, the leader of Bell Labs' communications and signal processing research group in Murray Hill, New Jersey, is working on the successor to 4G mobile communication.
Although it is in a very early stage — no working prototype has yet been created — his system would see 400 antennae on one base station. This would theoretically allow for 20 times the bandwidth of long-term evolution, the replacement for 3G that is just starting to be deployed now.
"We haven't been able to come up with a catchy name," Marzetta said, adding that 'massive MIMO' and 'large-scale MIMO' are candidates.
Some ideas on show at Bell Labs are in an extremely early stage of development. This photo shows concepts drawn up by college students, in collaboration with the research organisation.