Saturday, 30 July 2011

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman and his DIDO Wireless Tech

Silicon Valley’s self-styled Thomas Edison has found a way to increase wireless capacity by a factor of 1,000.

OnLive CEO Steve Perlman and Antonio Forenza with DIDO test carts
Lunchtime, Lytton Ave., Palo Alto, Calif.: It’s a bright, mild July afternoon, and khaki’d professionals meander past the boutiques and coffee shops, heading back to their digital workstations. One of the slower pedestrians, who gets more than a few curious glances from passersby, is a middle-aged guy in jeans and a green T-shirt, carefully rolling a utility cart down the sidewalk. The cart is one of those black, plastic, double-decker jobs you find at a home-improvement store. It’s laden with electronics and has white vinyl plumbing pipes that stick into the air from two corners. “It’s a very small group of people that actually turn the wheels around Silicon Valley,” says Stephen G. Perlman, the Silicon Valley inventor, entrepreneur, founder and CEO of OnLive who once sold a company to Microsoft (MSFT) for half a billion dollars, as he hunches over to keep the gear from jostling.

“What’s that?” asks an onlooker, a scruffy guy with gray hair and a beard to match. He looks like he’s been to a few too many Grateful Dead concerts.

Perlman patiently explains that he’s developing a new type of wireless technology that’s about 1,000 times faster than the current cell networks. It will, he says, end dropped calls and network congestion, and pump high-definition movies to any computing device anywhere.

“Huh. Cool,” says the guy, evidently deciding that Perlman is some sort of technological busker. He dumps a handful of acorns on Perlman’s cart and walks away. Perlman shrugs: “You get all kinds here.”

Now that he’s stopped in front of the Private Bank of the Peninsula, the demonstration is about to begin. It’s the first he’s ever given of his latest technology on the record. He points to the laptop on his cart. There’s a square with purple dots dancing around like television static. Perlman calls his office and tells an engineer to activate some software. Suddenly, the dots form a tight ball in the center of the screen. Perlman explains that the antennas, fastened to the ends of the plumbing pipes, have just picked up a radio signal sent from his office across the street. “It’s almost like magic,” he says.

A radio signal from point A to point B is hardly magic, but it isn’t just any signal his utility-cart contraption has picked up. This one reached B without encountering any hiccups or degradation of the sort familiar to anyone who tries to make a mobile call or watch a streaming video on a smartphone. The tight ball of dots represents what Perlman calls “the area of coherence,” and it means the device has found a pure signal.

Perlman named the technology DIDO, for Distributed-Input-Distributed-Output, a wireless technology that breaks from the time-tested techniques used for the past century. DIDO, he says, will forever change the way people communicate, watch movies, play games, and get information.

“They thought we were crazy,” Perlman says of the response he got from scientists during the concept stage of DIDO. He says he had his first inklings of the technology around 2001. He’d been demonstrating his Moxi Media hub on the trade-show circuit, specifically showing off its ability to handle video over Wi-Fi. His demos always ran smoothly in those days—this was before laptops, smartphones, and tablets owned by every conference attendee clogged up the Wi-Fi. But he feared the coming bottleneck. “As soon as everyone saw how convenient this was and started sharing the network en masse, we were doomed,” he says.

Wireless networks all suffer from a basic limitation: interference. Radio signals are waves. If you’re watching Netflix (NFLX) on your iPad via Wi-Fi, the tablet’s antenna is receiving a signal from a transmitter. If no one else is around—and you’re in a room with thick walls that block other radio signals—you’ve got a great connection. If someone else has an iPad in the room, each person ends up with half the maximum data speed. Throw a second Wi-Fi signal into the mix, perhaps from another office or home, and interference becomes an issue. Both signals hit your iPad at the same time, and the device has to try to discern the movie from this noise. People in apartment buildings or at crowded coffee shops know all too well just how shoddy a Wi-Fi connection can be when lots of signals collide.

Cellular operators like AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless (VZ) face similar problems. They would love to put up towers all over the place, but they can’t. Signals from towers bleed into each other, causing interference. One tower covering a certain area works fine until too many nearby users make calls or pull up Web pages at the same time. That’s when data transfer rates fall and calls drop, aka iPhone syndrome.

Perlman had an idea. Interference happens when a device receives multiple signals at once and the wave is muddied. The physics gets very complicated here, but Perlman thought there might be a way to turn interference into a virtue—use that combining property of radio waves to “build” a signal that delivers exactly the right message to your iPad. Multiple transmitters would issue radio waves that, when they reach your tablet, combine to produce a crystal clear signal. If there’s another person in the room with an Android phone or a laptop, the system would take those devices into account so that they, too, received unique waves from the transmitters. Such a system would need to precisely analyze wireless information from the devices at all times, and constantly recalculate the complex combinations of signals from each of the transmitters on the fly. Figuring all that out in real time would of course require some extremely powerful computers.

That, in a nutshell, is DIDO. About seven years ago, Perlman set out to assemble a team to test the concept and, assuming it worked, build it. He shopped his idea to scientists at universities around the country, and eventually found a taker, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas named Antonio Forenza. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Forenza agreed to work for Perlman and has spent the last few years of his life bringing DIDO to life.

Forenza built a makeshift lab at his house in Austin, Tex., which overflows with equipment—antennas, radios, power supplies, and computers. Much of this equipment goes toward testing DIDO in urban and suburban settings, but Forenza has a rural setup as well. He’s conducted long-distance tests linking Austin with ranches about 25 miles away in Pflugerville and Elgin. Forenza purchases prefab mini-barns from Home Depot (HD) and packs them with his homemade gear. “We’ve had cows chew up our cables,” Perlman says. “And some amorous bulls get friendly with our antenna masts.”

To make DIDO work, Forenza and other members of the Rearden team developed three basic components. First, there’s a server in a data center that uses a complex set of algorithms to create a “digitized waveform”—the unique, interference-resistant message that will reach someone’s computer or phone. The server sends this message over the Internet to the second component, a small device that could sit in an office or a home, much like today’s Wi-Fi routers. That device then delivers the message to a phone, laptop, tablet, or TV that’s equipped with the third part of DIDO, a special antenna.

All three components are in constant communication. As a person moves around with a smartphone, the server recalculates and keeps crafting new waveforms. The result is a consistent, full-powered signal, rather than one that’s shared with other nearby devices. In urban settings, a DIDO transmitter can cover about a mile. That’s a huge leap over the 100 feet to 300 feet for Wi-Fi access points that must limit their broadcasting oomph to avoid interference.

Since electromagnetic noise does not affect the DIDO transmitters, they can be placed anywhere. They’re small, too, which could mean no more not-in-my-backyard fights over the placement of unsightly cell towers. The multi-city tests conducted by Forenza also showed that DIDO transmitters could be tuned to bounce signals off the ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere about 150 miles up. Using this technique, the technology could serve rural areas and even airplanes. “We can provide DIDO service down to the floor of the Grand Canyon,” Perlman says, adding that he could cover huge swaths of rural America with high-speed wireless using just dozens of DIDO access points.

There’s plenty of work left to prove the mettle of DIDO in real-world conditions. The tests to date have been conducted on the amateur radio spectrum with a maximum of 10 people communicating simultaneously, and the software that performs the complex calculations behind the scenes is still buggy. But as the geek saying goes, those are engineering problems, not science problems. Richard Doherty, who is director of the tech consulting firm Envisioneering has examined the DIDO system and says it’s breathtaking. “Steve needs to put up more transmitters and play around with different wavelengths,” he says. “He’s talked about simulating 1,000 times performance improvements over cellular, but there’s no reason why even greater gains might not be possible. Steve’s discovered things that aren’t in any of the textbooks or the patent roster.”

The greatest obstacle for Perlman, as Doherty sees it, may be the telecommunications industry, which has invested billions setting up conventional cellular networks. “The current use of radio is bound more by inertia and successful lobbying efforts than by efficient use of spectrum,” Doherty says. “But Steve has shown the old models are limited, and there is something else we can do. People will demand this.”

Now that he has proved the technology works, Perlman has started to receive investor interest in DIDO. He declines to reveal the names of any specific organizations, but says that European groups have requested the most information. “Frankly, we’re getting more interest from foreign governments than the U.S.,” he says. “It is very likely the first widespread use will not be here.”

SOURCE: Businessweek.


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