A Networked World: Soon, everyday items will talk to you


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 Talon Communications of San Diego, Calif., draws information from smart electric meters and displays rate warnings on simple items such as refrigerator magnets. It’s 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 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.

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 says. “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.”

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,” says 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, he says.
ZigBee is not the only short-range wireless technology in the works. Nokia started development of a system with an equally quirky name, Wibree, 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.

The Contenders
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.
• 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.
• 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.