Cell phones that peer through walls and wireless connection speeds increased by 10 times are technically feasible, and prototypes have already been demonstrated, according to an MIT researcher.
At the recent Mobile Summit: It's a Disruptive Mobile World conference in Boston sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, Dina Katabi, the director for the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile, outlined a series of technology developments that had the seriously mobile enthusiastic audience wanting to know more.
Katabi, who holds 12 awards for her research, has a particular interest in adapting tools from applied mathematics to solve network obstacles including network congestion, scale and security.
"There are new ways to use the wireless spectrum to achieve 10 times more data for your cell phone and new applications," Katabi told the audience.
Mega multiple input, multiple output (MegaMIMO)—a patent-pending technology—delivers 10 times more wireless data per unit of spectrum. A winner of the MIT Elevator Pitch Contest, MegaMIMO allows multiple WiFi access points to collaboratively create WiFi capacity as additional access points are added to the system. In current WiFi environments, additional access points often create additional data collisions and crashes.
One of the more well-known examples of WiFi limitations came during Steve Jobs' introduction of the iPhone 4 on June 7, 2010, at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference when he was forced to ask audience members to shut off their wireless devices to demonstrate the new phone.
While the MIMO concept has been well established, the ability to create capacity rather than create collisions is the MIT development and, according to Katabi, the technology can scale, offer additional security and be overlaid onto existing networks.
A more complete description of the technology is available at the MIT Networks site, but Katabi claimed that the technology has been proven in a conference room setup using 10 WiFi stations where capacity was increased nearly 10 times.
The possibility of using WiFi signals and smartphones to peer through walls drew intense questioning from the audience. Describing the technology, dubbed WiVi, as still in its infancy, Katabi showed a video of the smartphone-WiFi combination detecting a person moving in a conference room separated from the smartphone by a solid wall.
The WiVi system is based on concepts similar to sonar and radar but instead of using expensive equipment and restricted spectrum, the system used low-cost, low-power WiFi signals to measure and cancel out stationary objects while leaving moving object visible.
The first public disclosure of the technology was in June 2013, and it is still unproven if the system that uses two transmit antennas and a single receiver could be easily incorporated into a smartphone. While the system at present can detect movement, it cannot identify individual features.
University-based technology projects tend to have a long, slow journey to commercial deployment. Of the two projects Katabi highlighted in her presentation, MegaMIMO has the most immediate appeal for the bandwidth starved.
However, the WiVi project wins the cool factor by a large margin. Both projects illustrate how to reuse established technologies in new ways. Vendor-based research is too often focused on small improvements to existing products or trying to duplicate a competitor's product while avoiding a patent legal suit. I'm rooting for Katabi to turn her powerful command of networking technologies into powerful products.
Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor in chief at eWEEK (previously PC Week) from 1996-2008, writes this blog for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.