CES - Wireless wows 'em at crowded Vegas show

"It was very overwhelming."

That was how Andrew Hintz, Internet technology director for the California Democratic Party, summed up Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' razzle-dazzle digital lifestyle presentation at last week's sprawling, hyperkinetic International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

He pretty well summed up the entire event, which spread from the massive Las Vegas Convention Center to the merely big Sands Convention Center, to accommodate 2,500 exhibitors and an estimated 100,000 daily visitors, including Hollywood types such as singer Justin Timberlake and actor Morgan Freeman. The event pulsed with music and lights, and featured an astonishing number of companies whose sole reason for being seems to be creating accessories for Apple's iPod music player.

But digging deeper into CES announcements and demonstrations shows why the event has become such a draw, particularly in the areas of wireless and mobile computing.

Solid advances were evident at the show, though conflicts over standardizing some technologies and complex user interfaces and configuration schemes remain stubborn obstacles.

The biggest name in chips, Intel, formally unveiled two systems based on its latest processors and chipsets: notebooks based on the Centrino Duo technology, formerly known as Napa, and Viiv (rhymes with "five") home entertainment PCs.

Intel's first dual-core version of the Pentium M processor, is now known as Core Duo. This chip will provide the basis for all of Intel's processors starting later this year. The Centrino Duo package will feature the Core Duo processor, a mobile-optimized chipset, and an upgraded wireless chipset that supports 802.11a/b/g.

Atheros Communications demonstrated a new MIMO chipset that delivers data at rates as high as 300Mbps, with enough range to blanket a typical home. Broadcom unveiled what it says is the first Wi-Fi chipset designed for video phones. It's aimed at mobile and desktop phones. The chipset packages a Broadcom VoIP processor, its 802.11b/g wireless LAN (WLAN) chip and a chip designed for video processing.

Broadband wireless

Samsung demonstrated notebooks and smartphones communicating over its WiBro wireless broadband network, based on the mobile WiMAX standard, IEEE 802.16e. Korea's leading telco, KT, plans to go live with a WiBro net this spring, using Samsung's base stations, network core gear and handsets carrying a 802.16e radio.

The demo showed a laptop receiving streaming video, three others doing videoconferencing and a handful of Samsung smartphones doing messaging and sharing pictures over the WiMAX connection. With everything running full-bore, the demo network had 800Kbps for the downlink and 550Kbps for the uplink. KT expects to see vastly higher rates: 5.8Mbps upstream and 2.3Mbps downstream, Samsung says.

Also, HP announced a notebook computer with built-in support for Verizon Wireless' EV-DO network in the United States. This is the latest example of a trend toward such connectivity, as Dell has announced plans to embed EV-DO and High Speed Downlink Packet Access chips into its notebooks, and Lenovo announced a High-Speed Downlink Packet Access notebook in partnership with Cingular Wireless.

"This starts to bring out the promise of corporate applications available anytime, anywhere," says Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP's personal systems group.

Another example of the fast-growing capabilities of wireless is start-up Amimon, which demonstrated a 5-GHz wireless technology that, the company says, is the first to process uncompressed high-definition video and transmit it wirelessly at about 20Mbps to TV displays inside a room.

"TVs don't connect to the Ethernet, or to a set-top box via USB," says Noam Geri, Amimon's vice president of marketing. "They connect using a wired video interface such as [Digital Video Interactive], [High-Definition Multimedia Interface] or component video. We're the first to offer a wireless version of these wired interfaces."

Ultra wideband update

Ultra wideband (UWB) vendors unveiled development kits and conducted demonstrations that showed the low-power radio technology in action. UWB can transmit up to 480Mbps at six to 10 feet, with an eventual maximum range of about 150 feet.

PulseLink showed a UWB connection between a Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console and a flat-panel TV. Alereon released development tools for its UWB boards and reference designs, covering both network and wireless USB, which uses UWB to replace cables between a PC and peripheral devices.

But conflicts between two UWB groups (the WiMedia Alliance and the UWB Forum) promoting different modulation schemes has brought the standardization work of the IEEE 802.15.3a task force to a "standstill," says Edward Thomas, former chief engineer for the FCC, who was active in winning a green light for UWB from the FCC. He predicts the task force will disband next year, ceding standardization to European bodies.

But the conflict didn't stop Belkin from unveiling the CableFree USB Hub, which it bills as the first UWB-based device in the U.S. market. A user plugs up to four existing USB devices into the hub, which uses UWB components from Freescale, to connect to a PC fitted with a UWB adapter. Wireless USB dongles and adapter cards are due out this year.

The Tower of Babel syndrome is even more evident for wireless sensor networks being applied to home automation and building controls, where no clear standard rules. There are competing radio formats and network protocol stacks from groups such as the Zigbee Alliance (which uses the IEEE 802.15.4 standard for the radio link), the Z-Wave Alliance and Smarthome's Insteon.

Bulogics released BaseCamp, a US$400 Z-Wave-based controller that plugs into a television to display a graphical control interface for other Z-Wave products in the home. Users navigate and configure settings using a small handheld remote.

Control4 demonstrated its Home Theater Controller, with built-in Ethernet, 802.11b/g, and Zigbee support. Though targeted at controlling home audiovisual gear, and streaming audio and video, ranging from TVs to iPods, the system's software and remote are also intended to configure the company's Zigbee light switches, Ethernet touch screens, light dimmers, 802.11b/g wireless speakers and other products.

Control4 CTO Eric Smith uses the products in his home. Leaving the house, he presses the on-screen "house off" button, which shuts off and dims lights, adjusts the heat settings, and verbally announces "back door left open." The kitchen lights flash whenever the family Xbox is turned on, so he can stay aware of his kids' entertainment-to-homework ratio.

"Home automation has been 'just around the corner' for 20 years," Smith says. IP networking and wireless networks and standards have now made it much simpler, and now make it possible to retrofit automation controls to existing buildings.

The IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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