In the Matrix movies, artificially intelligent overlords use humans as batteries to power their empire. Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., in Tokyo, has a different take on the idea: instead of using people as power sources, use them as 10-megabit-per-second communication links to each other.
This year NTT is working to perfect the networking technology it calls RedTacton ("Red" for warmth, "T" for touch, and "acton" for action), which could ultimately let people transfer data to each other's handhelds by means of a handshake or a slap on the back. The company claims that you will see RedTacton devices rolled out by mid-2007, though it declines to say exactly what they will be. While NTT has already made prototype devices available to potential partners for inspection, the Japanese giant doesn't yet have commercial-grade RedTacton devices customized for specific uses or any applications that aren't already served by RF technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Nor does the company have a bill of materials that won't exhaust consumers' wallets.
There's always been something whimsical and just a tad creepy about near-field intrabody communication, as it is technically known. It leverages the conductive properties of the human body to transfer data among electronic devices--an MP3 player to wireless headphones, for instance. Conceived and patented in the mid-1990s by Neil Gershenfeld and Thomas G. Zimmerman at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Mass., the Personal Area Network (not to be confused with the IEEE 802.15 standard of the same name) made a big splash among technophiles in the run-up to the dot-com boom. By 1996, Zimmerman was ensconced at IBM's Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., trying to commercialize the concept.
Zimmerman started to explore potential applications for personal area networks (PANs). He and others envisioned personal digital assistants that would let people exchange business card information merely by shaking hands, PDAs that would automatically sync with PCs when you walked into the office, and even door locks that would open after receiving the proper identification data when you touched the knob. But Zimmerman quickly realized that emerging radio-based cable-replacement technologies, such as the IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standards and the IEEE 802.15 Bluetooth standard, would allow products from many different companies to communicate and essentially render PAN technology redundant before it could be commercialized.
"PAN was lots of fun," says Zimmerman, "and we got some great PR and parlor tricks out of it"--the magicians Penn & Teller used a PAN in their Las Vegas act to play a set of 128 invisible drums. "But at IBM, we make products," he told IEEE Spectrum in a rare interview. With radio-frequency alternatives on the near horizon, IBM couldn't come up with a business model to make PAN viable. So Zimmerman set aside his brainchild and began working with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other RF technologies.
If there's a lesson in Zimmerman's experience, it's been lost on NTT. Despite the thriving array of standardized, short-range wireless networking technologies--Wi-Fi (11 to 54 Mb/s), Bluetooth (1 to 3 Mb/s), ZigBee (250 Kb/s), and Ultrawideband (40 to 600 Mb/s)--NTT is plunging ahead with its "human area network," or HAN. A PAN by any other name is, according to MIT's Gershenfeld, a potentially patent-infringing technology. And unless NTT can overcome some major technological, psychological, and economic hurdles, a HAN won't ever amount to anything more than a flash in the PAN.