June 4, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

Communication devices can interfere with daily life

by Roger Martin

Psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that a baby experiences the world as a "blooming, buzzing confusion."

Today, it's older folks who find the world to be that way, and electronic devices help contribute to the impression.

Think of what it's like for a person born before the advent of television to have a grandkid take his picture with a phone.

To some elders, today's electronic devices are, in two words, hatefully versatile.

If the devices worked reliably, that might be OK. But the world of wireless communications isn't just a blooming confusion. It's also a buzzing confusion -- and the buzzing is aggravating.

Nobody wants his or her transmissions trashed by somebody else's, but given that the air is boiling with more and more electronic buzz, it's happening.

That's why Gary Minden works on issues of interference among wireless devices. The University of Kansas professor of electrical engineering and computer science is not immune to the problems.

Minden bought his wife a phone headset so she could water her garden as she talked with her mother. This adventure in multitasking was working fine until one day she got too close to the microwave when he was warming up his coffee.

Minden and his KU colleagues are examining various strategies to expand wireless transmission traffic without adding to traffic jams and collisions.

For example, with National Science Foundation support, Minden is building what he calls an "agile radio" to see how close he can come to TV channel frequencies without disturbing them.

He's also interested in exploiting radio frequencies that smaller users rely on.

Think, for example, of a two-way radio system used by a concrete supplier and a company truck.

Minden wants to sneak in transmissions on these frequencies when they're not being used -- or else send a signal that's very weak when they are, a signal that won't disturb the stronger one.

An interesting aspect of this whole problem is what Minden calls the "wild, wild West" of unlicensed communications devices.

The FCC licenses TV and radio broadcasters. It regulates cell phones. But it doesn't mess with baby monitors, garage-door openers, microwaves, wireless computers and cordless phones.

"If my wife walks close to my wireless computer while she's talking on her headset," Minden says, "she can hear packets of information being sent over the Internet."

In the end, elders who live in this blooming, buzzing confusion grumble a lot. They share their pain with other dissatisfied customers of the pushbutton life. They ask sarcastically how babies survived before monitors that can tell a sigh from a cry.

They speak wistfully of a simpler age when no one over the age of 30 could be trusted.

I suppose I could accept the wireless world, if only I could teach my garage door opener to multitask. I'd like it to reheat my coffee as it raises the door.

But it won't.

Not yet.


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