Spaghetti me not

We'd all like less tangle in our lives. But can the 'wireless wire' standards that are emerging to help us cut the cord thrive in this economic climate? E&T went to Las Vegas to find out.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which takes place every January, brings an entire industry to Las Vegas for a week, to meet and greet, buy and sell, and to make and break alliances. It's also the place to be if you're backing a new wireless standard for the consumer industry that may or may not take off in the current economic climate. The heads of the Wireless HD Consortium, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group and the Wireless USB initiative all made sure they were in Vegas to pitch their offerings.

 Wireless connectivity has been all the rage in the consumer industry for years, as customers yearn to do away with the spaghetti of cables that accumulates behind TV cabinets, around office desks and under docking stations. The question is whether the 'wireless wire' standards that could do away with this mess will turn out to be a 'must have' at the moment, or just a 'nice to have'.

It's not as though standards are vital. If you're a big enough player you can create a standard and invite the rest of the industry to play along - a classic technique to control a market. But open standards help to ensure interoperability between vendors' equipment, which expands the market, and can be backed by a logo, which promotes recognition of the standard's advantages.

Nowhere is a wire--less standard more urgently needed that in the transmission of HD video signals, which currently have to be carried on HDMI cables that can sometimes seem more like plumbing than wiring. At CES, many TV vendors were demonstrating wireless connections between screens and media sources, but hardly any were promoting standards, certifications or logos. The standards bodies were present and taking meetings, but there was still uncertainty about which standards the vendors would opt for.

Wireless HD 1.0

The Wireless HD Consortium used last year's CES to announce version 1.0 of its standard, and this year's to unveil the completion of the specification for its logo programme. It has also declared its intent to develop solutions working in the 60GHz band.

"The first iteration, Wireless HD version 1.0 [of the standard] is focused on uncompressed audio and video transmission," says John Marshall, chairman of the Wireless HD Consortium. "However, it will be capable of doing much more. Over a control channel, it will also have the capability of transmitting data,"

Marshall believes that consumers will want to use the Wireless HD standard for more than just streaming HD television.

"We completed a 2,000-consumer study world-wide asking opinions about what they want to do with high-speed wireless technology and where they would want to apply that in the context of high-definition content media," he said. "Obviously consumers say that their highest priority is watching a Blu-ray application like TV. But they also want to have a notebook PC doing virtual docking so that it can just connect to a monitor or a disk-drive."

Even as the Consortium explores how the current standard may be used, it is also considering how it should evolve. For example, several vendors used CES to showcase 3D televisions and HD displays with refresh rates of up to 240Hz, which will consume even more bandwidth than today's HD signals.

"The next step for wireless HD - because we're not stopping with 1.0 - is to enhance that audio/video standard to deal with these new technologies," says Marshall.

Developing the technology is crucial because it can currently only deliver a little over 4Gbit/s. Since an uncompressed 1080p HD audio/video feed consumes about 3.8Gbit/s, there's little headroom in the current Wireless HD standard for more data. However, the Consortium is confident it will eventually be able to deliver up to 8Gbit/s without combining channels, a trick used by other communications standards to increase available bandwidth.

This is crucial as two other 60GHz initiatives have recently been announced that will operate in roughly the same spectrum. The first is the IEEE 802.15.3C initiative for short-range wireless personal area networks. The second is an ad hoc-networking extension to the emerging 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, known as IEEE 802.11ad.

Marshall also points out that, unlike Wireless USB, the Wireless HD standard defines things above the transport layer: "Wireless HD was designed for the application. We must make sure that the wireless HD spec includes the MAC and PHY spec, but it must also include how you control a device and how it works."

For example, Marshall says, Wireless HD modules should ensure that the audio and video on screen are perfectly synchronised by using a shared clock signal to ensure that audio delivered to wireless speakers and video delivered to the display are in step.

Wireless USB 1.1

The latest Wireless USB 1.1 standard does not have the luxury of such application-specific enhancements. The wireless replacement for the ubiquitous USB cable is based on the WiMedia Alliance's Ultra-WideBand (UWB) common radio platform, which is theoretically capable of sending 480Mbit/s over distances of up to 3m, and 110Mbit/s over up to 10m. It operates in the 3.1 to 10GHz frequency range.

HD signals would have to be compressed to run over Wireless USB's limited bandwidth, which is why the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) does not see it as competing with Wireless HD. Conversely, Jeff Ravencraft, chairman of the USB-IF, does not believe that Wireless HD will encroach on Wireless USB's role linking computer equipment to displays and storage.

"We see wireless USB as being very complementary to Wireless HD or Bluetooth, and neither are we planning to be a LAN technology. It's simply meant to be USB that is wireless," says Ravencraft.

Clearly Ravencraft does not see other standards as a threat to the development of Certified Wireless USB. However, the standard has been in development since at least 2004 - and so far it has not crossed the chasm, from use by early adopters to mass uptake, in the way that wired USB has. There are hundreds of certified devices, but few signs of widespread use.

One of the issues with Wireless USB is that users have to make an initial pairing between devices using a physical connection such as a conventional USB cable, which has put off both vendors and consumers. The USB-IF is aware of this and as a result in the future the standard will incorporate a radio-based near-field-communications link to simplify the initial pairing.

Bluetooth SIG

The heads of the USB-IF and the Wireless HD Consortium bought booth space at this year's CES, but Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, was happy just to jet in over the weekend to press the flesh and walk the show floor for a few hours.

Bluetooth has been with us for more than ten years and Foley knows that in this fast-moving industry, he has to move the wireless technology forward. He says that Bluetooth will move in two major directions this year.

The first is the introduction of a new low-energy and low-bit-rate standard, which will be used mainly in devices such as heart-rate monitors. The Bluetooth Low Energy Technology is based on the Wibree specification and is expected to use one-tenth the power of existing Bluetooth.

"With the low-energy technology, a medical device, such as a Bluetooth pedometer or heart-rate monitor, could run off a tiny battery for months or even years," he says.

The second direction has caused more controversy. Foley has been talking about UWB integration for some time and says he will be able to announce a completed standard later this year. This will create a Bluetooth variant with a high-speed/high-data-rate option to meet the demands of synchronising and transferring large amounts of data, as well as enabling high-quality video and audio applications for portable devices, multimedia projectors and television sets, and wireless VoIP.

However, both Wireless HD's Marshall and USB-IF's Ravencraft are doubtful whether this will be viable and whether it can coexist with their standards.

"I can see the logic in going down the low-energy route, but Bluetooth as a wide-bandwidth technology is debatable," says Ravencraft.

Unlike the newer standards, Bluetooth at least seems to have a secure future, having achieved mass uptake.

"We were hoping to reach the two billion shipments milestone next year, but we probably won't reach that until 2012," says Foley.

In the current economic climate, the future of Wireless USB and Wireless HD seems less certain. Both standards still need to move from early adoption to mass uptake by vendors and consumers alike. With the recession, there's a risk each standard could end up being dominated by one or two companies.

"I don't think that will happen, because there is a lot of IP out there," says Ravencraft. But there remains the risk that consumer neglect, rather than corporate IP wrangles, could still put paid to the dream of having less spaghetti in our lives any time soon.

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