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Chances Are It’s Going Mobile

By Richard A. Quinnell

Humans are essentially social creatures. We prefer to be in the company of others rather than to be alone. Isolating someone, depriving them of contact with other humans, is a form of torture, which is why solitary confinement is reserved for only the most difficult prisoners. We prefer to stay connected.

At the same time, we are a mobile creature. Earliest human societies were hunter/gatherers, roaming the landscape looking for food. When we developed agriculture we found that we had to stay in place in order to grow and protect crops, so we formed towns and cities. But we still were mobile: even the most ancient cities show signs of commerce with other communities. We just cannot seem to stay put.

This combination of desires - social connectedness and wanderlust - has long presented a conflict that humans have evolved a variety of technologies to solve. Writing, smoke signals, telegraph, radio, and telephones all serve the purpose of allowing us to be mobile while maintaining a connection with others. Now, technology has evolved to the point that it is becoming possible to remain connected in real-time while moving about virtually anywhere in the world.

What we will see as the future direction of this technology is an ever-increasing depth to the level of connectedness. For instance, cell phones were first only voice channels. Now they allow text and photos as well. Emerging applications include video and entertainment. You will be able to listen to your favorite radio station in Chicago even when you are in Paris, or catch the Yankees ball game from South Africa, all on your cell phone.

I suspect that things will go even further. The dual nature of human desires will push mobile communications technology to offer virtually any form of human interaction that we can imagine. We will be able to do almost anything remotely that we can do in person, short of actual physical contact (although there are efforts to simulate that, as well).

This represents both tremendous challenge and opportunity for developers. The opportunities are in the realm of new things to communicate and ways to communicate them while maximizing mobility. There are already many applications in development. Imagine GPS-based personal locators that keep tabs on small children and Alzheimer’s patients and alert authorities if they stray too far from home. RFID tags in packaged goods can allow shoppers to enter a store and leave with their selection, then get billed electronically without passing through a checkout line. Detectors at the store door read the item codes and shopper’s ID as the person leaves. If you are a commuter, you might like to have traffic data sent to your in-car navigation unit to warn you of tie-ups before you reach the last exit to an alternative route.

The point is, the possibilities are almost boundless. Any type of information or communication a person wants can now be sent from anywhere to anywhere with the right equipment. Increasingly, consumers are demanding exactly that type of mobile connectedness. Defining the needs and designing the equipment to meet them can keep development engineers busy for the next decade at least.

The challenge is bandwidth. Shannon tells us that there is only so much information that we can squeeze into a signal channel, and there is a lot more information than there is channel capacity. Developers will need to come up with increasingly clever ways of utilizing the available channels, creating new ones, and compressing the information to make it all fit together.

For example, consider the popular on-line game Everquest. Each player gets a customized 3D view of a virtual world from the player’s unique and mobile viewpoint. Sending such a complex image over the network would require a tremendous bandwidth. The Everquest team, instead, designed a system whereby the player’s computer generates the view based on a simplified list of object names and locations. This requires sending only the list over the network, not the image, thus using considerably less bandwidth.

By re-thinking what information needs to be sent and by utilizing the resources of the receiver, the Everquest team provided a gaming experience that was thought to be unattainable with the communications technology available at its introduction. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking will be needed to meet the bandwidth challenge that comes along with the opportunities in mobile communications.