Body network gains speed

By Eric Smalley, Technology Research News

The human body is capable of many things, including acting as an information conduit -- quite literally.

Researchers from NTT Docomo Multimedia Labs and NTT Microsystem Integration Labs in Japan have demonstrated a 10-megabits-per-second indoor network that uses human bodies as portable ethernet cables.

The network, dubbed ElectAura-Net, is wireless, but instead of using radio waves, infrared light, or microwaves to transmit information it uses a combination of the electric field that emanates from humans and a similar field emanating from special floor tiles.

The network is faster than commercially available personal area networks like the 1-megabit-per-second Bluetooth radio wave system, and tops the 4-megabits-per-second infrared standard set by the Infrared Data Association (IrDA).

The system could eventually provide high-speed wireless communications among portable electronic devices whose positions constantly change. "The main aim of the system is to provide [a] new indoor communication infrastructure for [the] coming wearable and ubiquitous [computing] era," said Masaaki Fukumoto, a researcher at NTT Docomo Multimedia Labs.

The researchers' prototype network consists of a series of transceivers that can be placed every square meter under a tile or carpet floor, and a transceiver worn on the body or attached to a handheld device. "The user who holds [a] PDA or wearable device can connect to the Internet by just standing or walking on the floor," said Fukumoto.

A network that taps the human body's electric field was first developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers in 1996. To date, prototype electric field networks have been relatively slow, however, operating at speeds comparable to dial-up Internet connections, or about 180 times slower than the ElectAura-Net prototype.

The researchers' transceiver transmits data by oscillating the electric field surrounding the device. When the electric field that naturally emanates from a person intersects the electric field of the nearest tile transceiver, oscillations in one field are transmitted to the other.

The transceiver senses the oscillations with a sensor originally designed for testing circuit boards that bounces a laser beam off of a crystal and measures the reflected beam. Oscillations in an electric field surrounding the crystal alter the crystal, which changes the reflected light's polarization. The polarization measurements are translated into electric signals, which are forwarded over an ethernet network in the floor tiles to the portable device carried by the human.

In a world of ubiquitous networked communications, cellular data networks and GPS systems can be used outdoors to transmit data and determine locations. The researchers' system can provide the indoor equivalents, according to Fukumoto. "We're developing [a] large-scale floor communications system with automatic map generation and automatic routing," he said.

Using the transceivers contained in every square meter of a networked floor, the network can potentially track the positions of people or portable devices and generate maps showing their locations. Automatic routing determines the best path for transmitting communications between devices in the network.

The researchers are working to miniaturize the system components and to scale up the network so it can be used across larger spaces.

The researchers intrabody communication system is several orders of magnitude faster than anybody else's, said Kurt Partridge, a researcher at the University of Washington. They have shown that, as far as data rates are concerned, intrabody communication can compete with radio frequency technologies like Bluetooth, he said.

The challenge is reducing the device's power consumption, said Partridge. "With the prototype running at 2.7 watts, there's a lot to do before it's usable as a portable device," he said.

It's too soon to tell whether and when the prototype can be developed into a practical network, said Fukumoto.

Fukumoto's research colleagues were Katsuyuki Ochiai, and Mitsuru Shinagawa of NTT Microsystem Integration Labs in Japan and Toshiaki Sugimura of NTT Docomo. The researchers presented the work at the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group Graphics (Siggraph) 2003 conference in San Diego, July 27 to 31. The research was funded by NTT Docomo and NTT.

Timeline:   Unknown
Funding:   Corporate
TRN Categories:  Networking; Wireless Communications
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:   Technical paper, "ElectAura-Net," presented at the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group Graphics (Siggraph) 2003 conference in San Diego, July 27-31; Technical paper, "A Broadband Intrabody Communication System With the Electro-Optic Probe,"


October 22/29, 2003

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