The hallmark of the cellular revolution is the ability to do so many things on the go. Smartphones have given an entirely new meaning to being mobile.
In this sense, being mobile doesn’t just mean checking bank accounts or sending an email from a phone. On a more basic level, it means doing these (and so many other things) without being tethered to a stationary device. Not so long ago, however, simply doing some of these things on a desktop computer was considered liberating.
The changes we see and are benefiting from have much less to do with any particular device, such as a cellular phone or a PC, than they do with the evolution of a particular technology. The technology is the ability to convey data and signals over a wireless transmission.
Along the same lines, what makes most technological advances so marvelous is their ability to affect not just our lifestyles but our environments, to transform the way we conduct ourselves in certain settings. Often, they change the manner in which we conduct business in the office. They also revolutionize the way we carry out daily tasks at home.
In this regard, wireless technology is no exception. It is taking on matters of the home at a rapid pace. It is steadily becoming an integral component of a variety of different in-home functions. Soon, there may be few, if any, that do not contain at least some level of wireless interaction.
To be sure, home wireless use is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around for years. Garage door openers, car alarms, television remotes and cordless phones, for example, all employ wireless technology. Now, as one might imagine, the wireless offerings have expanded exponentially.
Wireless technology can be employed in the home in a variety of applications, including computer networking, gaming and movies, home office, home security, and appliance and energy management. Each has its own unique characteristics, and a variety of standards have been established over the years to fill the growing needs.
Of these technologies, Wi-Fi is the most prevalent. Put more bluntly, Greg Ennis, technical director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Austin, Texas, called it “the dominant wireless technology in the home.” In existence since 1999, the trade association certifies the interoperability of wireless local area network (LAN) products based on IEEE 802.11 specification.
“There is no competition to Wi-Fi in the home or buildings,” Ennis said. As the spokesperson for the wireless fidelity (aka Wi-Fi) trade association, he can be forgiven for displaying a little techno-prejudice. Objectively, though, he is probably right.
The list of devices that use Wi-Fi in the home is long. It includes wireless routers for Internet service and device networking, cameras, stereo speakers and MP3 players, gaming consoles, Blu-Ray players, printers, and of course, smartphones.
While Wi-Fi may not have reached the status of a ubiquitous, must-have, household product, it’s pretty close. As Ennis said, the technology is “well past the tipping point,” and growing fast. He projects a three-year trend in which “every high-tech device will have Wi-Fi.”
On the other hand, Wi-Fi is not the only wireless technology with a growing presence in the home. Bluetooth is a proprietary open wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances, using short wavelength radio transmission from fixed and mobile devices. It creates personal area networks (PANs) with high levels of security. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, Kirkland, Wash., manages the standard. Perhaps its most recognizable use is in headsets for cell phones. It also enables hands-free phone calls in the car.
Bluetooth allows other devices to talk to one another at short distances, say, for example, by transmitting photos, videos and information between cell phones or from a cell phone to a laptop, printer or TV. Bluetooth adds range in TV remotes, and it eliminates the need for cables in computer keyboards and mice.
Other technologies have also emerged to help fill the growing needs for more wireless connectivity and the gaps left in this regard by entrenched standards like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. For example, WiMedia is an ultra wideband technology that enables devices to interconnect for multimedia applications. Like Bluetooth, it enables short-range communication between devices in the home environment with low power consumption.
One product that operates on WiMedia technology is the Imation Link, a wireless audio/video extender that projects audio and high-definition video content from a computer to a television or projector. The small device operates on the premise that the TV is the best screen in the house and that households would rather view content on that screen than on their computer. The setup is simple. Users insert a USB transmitter into a USB port on the computer or laptop, then connect the link receiver to the TV with HDMI cables. Range is somewhat limited at 30 feet of line-of-sight.
Another device that enables a similar networking of household computing devices is Samsung’s Central Station, from Samsung Electronics America Inc., Ridgefield Park, N.J. Part high-definition monitor, part wireless docking station, users can use it to view content from their laptop on a much larger, HD screen. It creates a wireless PAN with devices such as external hard drives, keyboards, digital cameras, smartphones, and printers, all of which are anchored by and visible on the 27-inch, HD screen.
There is more to wireless in the home than computing. Other essential functions have also adopted the technology. Home security systems, for example, now incorporate wireless in a big way.
Residential security systems typically consist of several components, including the brain or panel, the interface or keyboard, detection devices in doors and windows, motion sensors, and detectors for broken glass, carbon monoxide and even floods. Historically, all of these components communicated to one another through hardwires, and by default, the home system communicated externally with the central monitoring station through the phone lines. Now, many of these interconnections have gone wireless.
Take, for example, the IMPASSA by DSC, a brand of Tyco Security Products. A self-contained, two-way, wireless security system, it comes complete with keypad, detectors, sensors and keys, all of which are wireless. Suffice it to say that the lack of wires in this system has dramatically eased its installation.
If security systems, home computing and entertainment are not enough, wireless technology has also entered the realm of home energy use. The ZigBee Alliance, San Ramon, Calif., is another trade association that develops wireless networking standards for green, low-power consumption. Examples of products that incorporate the standard include smart sockets, energy management hubs, in-home displays, power strips, thermostats, energy controllers and smart meters, and other devices. The objective of the standard is for utilities, consumers and their devices to communicate with one another efficiently to maximize energy use and minimize waste.
If the bottom line of all of this wireless in the home is to make us smarter and more efficient, where does that leave wires? To be sure, it is hard to argue with the freedom wireless provides. Now that homeowners have embraced it, the old days of wires going under and coming out of every corner of the house may be behind us.
Similarly, more wireless breeds even more wireless. It may not be visible, but wireless technology does take up space, figuratively speaking, of course. More accurately, wireless takes up bandwidth, and the more wireless technology we adopt, the more crowded that bandwidth becomes. It pushes the need for more choices within the wireless world, which explains why so many different standards have already been developed.
Cell phone companies like wireless
“Cellular systems can’t support all the traffic and data transmission,” said Ennis of the Wi-Fi Alliance. He credits this restriction for the initial adoption of Wi-Fi and points to its growing presence on cell phones as proof.
“It’s a snowball effect,” he said.
Like all technologies, wireless has its limitations, with range, reliability and battery life among them. Tim Myers is senior product manager at Tyco Security Products.
“There is only so much wireless space to play in,” he said, adding that, on the subject of signal strength, “many feel hard wiring is still the most reliable.”
Others who have plenty to gain from the growth of wireless are equally honest about its flaws. On the one hand, Mike Krell, secretary of the WiMedia Alliance, projects confidently that “wireless is with us forever.” On the other hand, he admitted candidly, “wireless will never be as good as wired. We sacrifice quality for convenience.”
If convenience is the driving motivation, what will the future look like? Most agree it will contain a combination of the two technologies, a hybrid of networking choices. Instead of choosing between wired and wireless, consumers are more likely to be making decisions about how and where to integrate the two into their home.
For example, the importance of the location of hard wiring in relation to wireless devices, for power and for high-speed Internet, could become the pre-eminent consideration. The popularity of wiring closets for the efficient distribution of wireless and wired transmissions within the home also could grow. Wiring plans for new homes will incorporate many of these considerations.
In the final analysis, wiring is also here to stay. Electrical contractors will play a vital role helping customers make decisions about all of the above. If anything, wireless technology could increase the need for wiring, too. After all, the one thing wireless can’t do is transmit power. Many wireless devices run on rechargeable batteries, but sooner or later, even they need to be plugged in. One consolation the wiring faithful can take from all this development is that the wireless adopters will always need more plugs.
LAEZMAN is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been covering renewable power for more than 10 years. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.