Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I, Router

One unexpected blessing from the advance of technology is the development of fabrics that can generate electric power using only the normal motion of the wearer. It does this using nanowires coated with zinc oxide that convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. There's no weird perpetual motion invention here. This is basic high school science that says energy is neither created or destroyed, but can be converted from one form to another with a little effort.

The inventor of this fantastic new product suggests using the technology to make shirts and shoes to power iPods or medical implants. The power density is 80 milliwatts per square meter of fabric. But that's just today. Who knows what future developments will be able to squeeze out of the shirt on your back. A Watt per T-Shirt? Several Watts per lumberjack shirt? This just assumes normal movements. If you happen to have a nervous tic, you could be a walkin' jerkin' generatin' station.

The idea of recharging an iPod while dancing down the street is a good one. Who knows how many tons of CO2 can be spared from the ever-warming atmosphere by lightening the load on those putrid coal fired power plants. But why not go a step further and save our dwindling oil supplies by recharging your hybrid car as you sit at stop lights, jumping to the beat of the latest dance music. In fact, why not just plug yourself in at home and give back to the grid? After all, it's given to us all these years.

Energy independence and environmental protection are excellent applications for the future "power" dresser. But all this electricity on the hoof may help solve a myriad of other societal problems, too. I'm thinking big. I'm thinking universal broadband.

Even at the current state of nanotechnology, we can conceptualize the wearable integrated circuit. Anyone who's enjoyed the soothing warmth of an electric blanket knows that they've been weaving wires into cloth for decades. Now it's time to add a little circuitry. The circuit designs for 802.11a, b, g, and n WiFi transceivers are certainly mature at this point. In fact, they have been miniaturized to fit into cell phones and PDAs. So, too, have mesh networks been perfected. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computer includes this capability so that children in undeveloped countries can interconnect their laptops to create a huge wireless network. Only one computer needs to be close to a wireless access point. The others route their packets from computer to computer to share that connection.

The big problem with deploying large scale mesh networks that could provide wide area wireless broadband coverage is the darn power supplies. You either need to mount these on light poles and divert power from the streetlights like municipal WiFi networks do. Or, depend on batteries that are constantly looking for a recharge. The OLPC approach also offers the option of turning a crank to keep the computer running. But how long can you keep every kid doing that before their arms fall off? It would be a great physical fitness program in the United States, except that the chubbiest kids are always the ones who are rich enough to afford MacBook Pros and won't lift a finger beyond opening the lid anyway.

Now, marry the technology of miniaturized wireless transmitters and receivers with power generating fabric and you have as many mobile WiFi nodes as you can get people to wear clothes. Dress 'em up. Send 'em out and the network comes to life. In cities and towns everywhere, available bandwidth comes on line as the day begins. It's densest during the work and school day when the demand for capacity is highest. As night falls and people change into their casual and party clothes, new nodes come on line. Dance clubs and sports arenas may generate enough excess bandwidth to allow couch potatoes the luxury of downloading HD videos as they relax, powerlessly.

With these mesh networks, no man is an island but everyone is a power station, a two-way radio and a router. Being called a "dynamo" has always been a compliment. Now it can really ring true. Referring to someone as "hot" may simply mean that they are active in the network.

Further integration of power, circuitry and fabric could lead to additional technology applications. It's long been a dream of VoIP advocates to bypass the public telephone network and make all their calls for free over the Internet. Why not include network voice features within electronic clothing? Your next coat could be much more than a soft jacket. It could be a softswitch.

And then there is the issue of sparsely populated areas where broadband communications options are needed the most. This is where our friends in the animal kingdom could lend a hoof or paw. Just look at the surface area on a cow's back and you can see the potential for high power transmissions. Polar Bears would be perfect to deploy "white space" transmitters above the Arctic Circle, if Google can get the FCC behind the idea. Other bears could help bring broadband access to the National Parks. Then again, how difficult will it be to get bears to wear jackets? The whole process seems... grizzly at best.

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