The more people and businesses add computers
to those they already have, the harder scientists search for
efficient ways to connect them. One dark-horse technology candidate
could reside in the ordinary television remote control that you use
to flick through channels.
Infrared technology, which has been around for quite a while, has
so far remained in the shadow of other, newer technologies. But if
current research pans out, it could become the wireless networking
tool of the future.
Computers are already using light beams to communicate with each
other. Using standards established by the Infrared Data Association (IRDA),
handheld computers like Palm Pilots are able to "beam" short notes
in small data "packets." Infrared is also used in laptops to send
data to printers without the need of cables.
But there are drawbacks that have proven discouraging to
researchers and investors. For example, the technology works best
when the transmitter is pointed directly at the receiver.
"That's a problem, even if you count bouncing the beams up to the
ceiling and down toward the port," Allen Nogee, senior analyst with
Cahners In-Stat Group, told Wireless NewsFactor.
"The second problem is that the data rates have never really been
all that fast. You think 'light' and you think 'high-speed,' but the
fact of the matter is, when the light is bouncing all around the
walls and ceiling, you get a lot of echoes. That slows the data rate
down considerably. Competing technologies are more feasible right
Another drawback is that infrared signals cannot pass through
walls or ceilings, meaning that at least one receiver and one
transmitter is required in every room.
Also, infrared's reputation suffered a setback recently when
Microsoft warned that the part of Windows 2000 software that
involves infrared support could allow malicious users to shut down
computers by remote control.
According to the Microsoft warning, a hacker could create a
special packet that exploits Windows 2000's built-in support for
IRDA. The packet could flood a computer with data and create a
"buffer overflow" that could cause the computer to restart.
But work is going on now aimed at solving these problems.
Researchers at Penn State University are trying to develop a
high-speed information network using infrared that they say could be
faster, more efficient and possibly even healthier, since health
experts aren't sure about the long-term effects of radio waves on
Drs. Mohsen Kavehrad and Svetla Jivkova are experimenting with
infrared light that bounces off myriad surfaces in a room, and which
they say is capable of transmitting data at two gigabits per second
-- roughly 1,000 times faster than cable modems -- and with fewer
As for the echoes, the Penn State researchers claim they may have
solved the problem with holographic filters. The filters produce
pencil-thin beams that create wide grids as they reflect around a
room, eliminating interference.
And, researchers in Germany are working on a receiver that can
separate true signals from interference and echoes.
Infrared technology has several advantages over radio waves,
especially in areas such as video teleconferencing. The radio
spectrum is heavily regulated, and only certain frequencies can be
Infrared frequencies, which are just below visible light on the
electromagnetic scale, are free and available to anyone who wants to
In addition, one of infrared's disadvantages can be turned into
an advantage in terms of security. Since infrared cannot penetrate
walls, there is less likelihood of eavesdropping than there would be
using ordinary radio waves.