By Doug Bedell
The Dallas Morning News
In consumer electronics, the Next Big Thing is always around the corner. Often, it turns out to be the Next Big Flop.
Take Bluetooth radio technology. It was hyped as the way we would rid ugly nests of cables sprouting from computers. Instead, after years of disappointing product rollouts, Bluetooth has settled into a narrow niche of connecting cell phones to wireless headsets.
So it is with trepidation that Texas Instruments and more than 70 other major consumer electronics companies approach the release of products using a promising wireless technology called Ultrawideband, or UWB.
Formerly known as pulse radio, UWB has recently been freed for use in the public sector after years of resistance from bureaucrats and the military, who wanted the concept reserved for their purposes. Like Bluetooth, it can be used in close range to connect peripherals to computers or digital cameras to hard drives.
But UWB is like Bluetooth on steroids.
It is 1,000 times faster but uses 100 times less power. That makes it ideal for home applications, such as streaming video from a camcorder wirelessly to a television.
Its high bandwidth efficiently moves dense, high-definition video signals from a set-top box to a television. In fact, its radio waves could stream multiple high-def feeds to several televisions in a household.
The closer the devices are to each other, the faster the UWB transfer speeds. Inside four meters, data move at 480 Mbps, comparable with the wired USB 2.0 transfer rate.
By comparison, the fastest wireless technology now available for home networking - 802.11g - moves data at a maximum theoretical rate of 54 Mbps.
When UWB products make their bow around Christmas 2005, they will most likely arrive in a PC-centric form, said analyst Kurt Scherf, vice president of research for Parks Associates of Dallas. Scanners, printers and other peripherals will be the first to the market, he says.
The next year is when things should get interesting, Scherf says. By then, camcorders and digital cameras will be equipped with UWB chipsets. That means new wireless freedom for the consumer, Scherf and other experts predict.
"All you'll have to do is move the camera into close proximity of your computer, and it will download faster than what we're used to now with USB," Scherf said. "In fact, it will be nearly instantaneous."
Flash memory used in digital cameras could become obsolete, proponents say. When shooting photos with digital still or video cameras, UWB will allow hobbyists to stream their creations right onto hard disks stored in their briefcases or backpacks.
By 2007, Intel and other computer makers will build UWB into computer motherboards, and the technology will blossom beyond the home office, Scherf says.
In the entertainment center, flat-panel and high-def television sets will use UWB to connect to cable and satellite set-top boxes.
"That's absolutely one of the main applications people are looking at, and that's got them so excited about UWB," says Steve Turner, UWB business development manager for TI's consumer networking group. "You've got all these flat-panel TVs hitting the market. You see them on commercials, and they never show you all those cables hanging down from the flat-panel to your receiver.
"With a wireless connection, that becomes reality."
Television sets aren't likely to have UWB built into their guts until the technology gains critical mass, Scherf says. But consumer electronics companies are already working on retrofitting devices for UWB connections using wireless "dongles" that plug into existing inputs.
"If we can get rid of all those cables and it's convenient to use, I think we've really got something here," said Mark Bowles, a founder of Staccato, a San Diego electronics firm.
Computer and entertainment center wiring currently tops 1 billion units a year, so the potential market is "bigger than cellphones," Bowles said.
UWB's backers are mindful that they can't afford the mistakes of Bluetooth and other pretenders to the Next Big Thing, Turner says.
"If you buy a new DVD player that's wireless and you've got a wireless TV at home, you want to come home, pull it out of the box, plug it in and have it work," Turner says. "It has to go out and find the other devices available, and only those devices. I don't want to find the television of the guy living on the other side of the wall from me."
Additionally, Hollywood must be convinced that video products will prevent theft and unauthorized copying.
"I don't think you'll really see the technology take off until those problems are resolved," Turner said. "But you've got a lot of people working on this from both the hardware and software sides. I think, ultimately, they will be."
© 2004, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.