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Monday, September 3, 2001

 N E W S

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Professor sees the future in infrared

UNIVERSITY PARK -- When Mohsen Kavehrad envisions the house of the future, he sees homeowners able to turn up the heat, turn on the lights and start dinner cooking before they ever leave the office -- courtesy of remotely transmitted, pencil-thin infrared beams.

"Infrared transmission is being tried in Europe, and there are some companies in Silicon Valley working with it as well," said Kavehrad, the holder of the Penn State W.L. Weiss chair in telecommunications. "We in the Center for Information and Communications Technology Research are in the process of designing an infrared technology that can go into many applications, from museums to supermarkets to homes and offices."

Wireless networks already provide some mobility for the information-hungry consumer, but they have distance limitations. Kavehrad's technology can transmit two gigabtyes a second and is free from the electro-magnetic interference that can result in transmission errors in current wireless networks.

The Penn State professor of electrical engineering's system involves bouncing infrared light off ceilings, sofas, even the family dog -- provided the animal isn't black -- connecting computers to one another and to a central transmitter. Along with exponentially increasing transmission capacity, the technology doesn't require line-of-sight transmission as with television remote controls.

With most offices wired for high-speed networks, Kavehrad sees wireless homes as the next frontier where computers won't just "talk" with other computers, but also with sensory units such as heat and light controls.

Infrared wireless networks have several advantages. Unlike the radio spectrum, infrared frequencies don't require licenses. They also pose no danger to human health -- a concern Kavehrad has about radio energy.

"And the technology components are very cheap," Kavehrad added. "While there's a lot of engineering and clever things used to design our infrared system, the components are available off the shelf."

The university has applied for a patent on the infrared technology and is in discussions with several multinational companies about licensing it, said Ron Huss, director of the university's Intellectual Property Office. Since Kavehrad publicized the infrared system at an international conference in July, interest has grown.

Kavehrad first became intrigued with the potential of wireless telecommunications when he worked for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1980s. With divestiture looming, he opted to leave the industry for Penn State. In 1997, he founded the Penn State Center for Information and Communications Technology Research, a "think tank" for future telecommunications systems and networks ready for the information age.

The center has received funding from some of the biggest names in telecommunications, including Lucent, IBM and Lockheed Martin. The National Science Foundation also has supported the center and specifically funded the infrared research project, Kavehrad said.

Kavehrad holds 11 patents, two of which are with Penn State, all involving some aspect of telecommunications, including fiber optics and wireless.

Other countries have adopted wireless communications more rapidly than the United States, largely because our existing telecommunications infrastructure had been adequate. The advent of the Internet changed that, as consumers desired faster access to higher quality voice, video and data than the industry's standard -- the copper twisted pair -- could ever deliver to homes and offices.

Enter wireless telecommunications. Wireless networks have much lower installation costs and are faster to deploy compared to their wired counterparts. But wireless has its own challenges.

"As people demand even higher capacities, there will be more complex problems to be solved," Kavehrad said. "There is no end to the future generations of wireless."

While those problems are intriguing, Kavehrad has a more immediate goal: making his lab wireless. Right now, a labyrinth of cables connects the tens of PCs in the center.

Margaret Hopkins can be reached at 231-4643.

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