My snake-oil detector was screaming at me, "This cant be right." That happens when someone tells me that everything I think I know is wrong, especially in an area like getting information into and out of a radio signal—something that Ive thought I understood since I got my first ham radio license 35 years ago.
Even so, I forced myself to ignore that mental alarms insistent clamor while talking with Jeffrey Parker, the CEO and founder of ParkerVision, based in Jacksonville, Fla. I kept reminding myself of the comment attributed to physicist Niels Bohr: "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field."
Conventional "superheterodyne" radio has had almost 90 years to get good at its familiar mistakes; ParkerVisions novel approach appears to offer dramatic improvements in radio performance, whether your measure of choice is maximum signal range or minimum power consumption.
ParkerVisions core concept is what the company calls Direct2Data, describing its method of extracting the data content from a modulated radio signal directly by sampling the energy of that signal. This is quite different from the prevailing approach that treats the radio "carrier" and the information components as separate things, like a container and its contents.
As I read the companys descriptions of Direct2Data and its underlying patents, I found myself thinking of the conventional approach as carefully peeling a potato while Direct2Data just mashes the thing and serves it. The Direct2Data approach appears to enable more robust circuits with improved efficiency and resistance to interference, all other things (such as circuit device count and power consumption) being equal.
The prerequisite is access to digital techniques and components that were, at best, theoretical possibilities when conventional radio technologies were being developed in the early 1900s.
We do have that access, and it now appears to be possible to do things in a different way—instead of building digital imitations of what weve so long "known."
Further discussion of actual benefit requires the use of decibels, a logarithmic measure of power ratios. "We get 21 dB greater dynamic range than the latest and greatest" conventional systems, Parker told me. What happens if you improve the performance of a radio circuit by 21 dB?
Radio signal strength falls off with the square of distance, meaning that a doubling of distance results in a fourfold loss of power at the receiver for a given transmitter and antenna configuration.
That fourfold weakening is a strength reduction of about 6 dB. A 21 dB improvement would allow almost 3.5 doublings of distance, yielding a factor of an 11.2 increase in range.
Sure enough, the reputable Toms Hardware site reports that with a ParkerVision access point and wireless card, "We were able to surf the Internet from the far corner of the parking lot, where before we could barely make it past the front door."
A painstaking test performed by Wi-Fi Planet found ParkerVision hardware maintaining connections, albeit with reduced data rates, at up to 200 feet of separation in environments where other devices lost their connection beyond 150 feet.
ParkerVisions latest initiative is its effort to transfer its energy-efficient innovations from the information-handling sections of radio gear into the power amplifiers as well.
What would it mean to improve the efficiency of a Wi-Fi transmitters output stage from, say, 4 or 5 percent to the 40-plus percent that ParkerVision claims to be able to achieve? It means putting out a watt of radio energy with only a 2.5-watt load on the battery, compared with the 20 watts that youd need to get the same output with the less efficient circuit.
Initially, the company claims a 50 to 80 percent power requirement reduction, or a twofold-to-fivefold improvement in the time that a device can be powered with a given amount of battery capacity. Ill take that, thanks.
Remember, it was also Niels Bohr who is said to have told a colleague, "We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct." ParkerVisions technology appears to be "crazy enough."
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.