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Don’t write off UWB

Posted by Richard on October 28, 2005

Eric at Eric’s Grumbles and Brad at The Unrepentant Individual both dismissed ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology recently, and I think they’re both probably wrong because they’re viewing it from the wrong perspective.

Eric began by noting that "Interestingly, and I’m in the IT industry, I haven’t heard of UWB." He went on to compare it to IBM’s Token Ring networking technology, which failed in the marketplace despite technical superiority, and argued that, like Token Ring, UWB will fail because:

… it isn’t established in the marketplace, another product already is. It’s not a killer app. It’s too late in the wireless market, the killer app already happened, WiFi, more esoterically known as the IEEE 802.11x standard. Like Token Ring, it will be around, a few people will invest in it, and then it will fade into computing history, as forgotten as CP/M.

Brad semiseriously began with his own lack of knowledge as a failure indicator and then made a different comparison:

To this, I apply the “have I heard of it” test. I’m an electrical engineer, and I work in the computer industry. I have never heard of UWB. Therefore, it’s not going to catch on 🙂
… 
This reminds me of a standard that was all the rage a few years ago, and has mostly fallen out of use: Firewire. Firewire was similar to USB, but was much, much faster, and could handle the demands of high-bandwidth applications like external hard drives, video devices, etc. But then USB 2.0 arrived, and had all the speed of Firewire with the addition of backward and forward compatibility to earlier versions of USB. Firewire is now going the way of
Betamax.

The reason neither Eric nor Brad had heard of UWB is also the reason they may be wrong about it: they’re computer geeks, and they’re looking at it from a computer/IT perspective. Their comparisons (except for Brad’s throwaway Betamax reference at the end) are to computer/IT products, Token Ring and FireWire. Wrong industry, guys.

UWB is no shoe-in, but it stands a good chance of succeeding — maybe not in the computer industry, but in consumer electronics. Which, by the way, is where FireWire has gained quite a bit of acceptance under the designation IEEE 1394. Most $1000+ and probably all $3000+ multi-channel home audio receivers and most $800+ multi-format DVD players have an IEEE 1394 connection. So do most or all digital camcorders, media servers, and media center PCs.

In fact, if UWB succeeds, it will do so at the expense of three different kinds of cable connections: IEEE 1394, DVI (Digital Visual Interface), and HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). All three of those have recently taken off because they reduce the cable clutter in a home theater system. For instance, a 1394 connection between a DVD player and receiver or pre-amp replaces the 6 analog cables previously needed for playing 5.1-channel DVD-Audio and SACD discs.

A typical high-end home theater system might include an HDTV, cable or satellite STB (set-top box), second STB or OTA (over-the-air) tuner, multi-channel receiver (or pre-amp/processor and power amps), multi-format DVD player, DVD recorder or DVR (digital video recorder), media server or media center PC, and perhaps additional playback devices or signal processors. It has a rat’s nest of cabling. And most of these components must be within 3 meters of each other, if only to keep the already-high cable costs (often $100+ per connection) from becoming astronomical. Replacing or merely relocating a piece of equipment can be a nightmare.

UWB could eliminate virtually everything except the speaker cables and do it without requiring complex installation or configuration procedures — the kind that computer geeks are used to, but which drive home theater enthusiasts away. And you could put those home theater components anywhere that’s convenient up to 20+ meters away.

UWB has sufficient bandwidth for multiple simultaneous high-definition video streams, and it’s much more impervious to interference than other wireless standards. That’s not such a big deal in a computer network, where you just resend the packets and wait a few extra milliseconds. But it’s critical for transmitting high-quality video and audio signals in real time among multiple components.

A few months ago, Chinese electronics manufacturer Haier and one of the technology leaders in UWB, Freescale Semiconductor, announced the first UWB-enabled HDTV and media server. Freescale just won a Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award.

This article from Mobile Pipeline provides a pretty good overview of UWB, including the ongoing struggle over UWB standards. For more than you ever wanted to know about UWB, try Ultrawidebandplanet.com.

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6 Responses to “Don’t write off UWB”

  1. Brad Warbiany said

    Perhaps I was looking at it from the wrong angle. I took that largely from the article, probably written by someone who had no clue what he was talking about, who was comparing UWB with WiFi. WiFi hasn’t made any real inroads into the A/V market yet, so perhaps UWB won’t disappear. But I don’t think it will ever “compete” with WiFi.

  2. VRB said

    At close proximity, would UWB cause noise problems for a home theater in the analog part? (speakers)

  3. Anonymous said

    Brad — People have been talking about the “convergence” of A/V and computers for years, and there have been steps in that direction — “media center” PCs and networked A/V stream servers. But they mainly attract computer geeks.

    The people who’re into home entertainment, but aren’t real computer geeks, have different needs/priorities and speak a different language. I’m somewhere in between, and I think UWB may make the A/V geeks happy in ways that WiFi won’t.

    VRB — I’m not sure what kind of noise you’re thinking of, but I think the answer’s no. UWB broadcasts over a very wide band of radio frequencies at very low power. That makes it highly immune to interference and also highly unlikely to cause noise/interference in other equipment.

    In fact, one of the gripes I’ve heard about standard WiFi is susceptibility to noise/interference in the narrow 2.4GHz or 5.whatever GHz bands where it’s broadcast. I haven’t used WiFi, but I know my 2.4GHz phone picks up noise something awful when my microwave is running. 🙂

  4. Quincy said

    Richard –

    I believe VRB is referring to the hum many speaker cables make when near devices that put out radio signals of sufficient strength. The main culprit, at least in my experience, is a cell phone. UWB would have to be low-power enough not to cause interference on the speaker cables for it to work in a home-theater situation.

  5. BlueGator said

    To Eric and Brad: do your research before you blog on something you know nothing about. That’s what Google, Dogpile, Feedster, Yahoo, and all the others are for. UWB will be big, very big…from personal electronics, streaming video, radar systems, medical applications, military comms, peer-to-peer networking, to even competing with WiFi in some situations. Every camcorder, TV, video game console, webcam, handsfree audio and video headsets, PVPs, etc, will have UWB in a year or two. UWB will wholly replace Bluetooth. 480 Mbps, certified wireless USB, 528 MB bandwidth, 7 GB of publicly usable spectrum. Do the math. We used to say that some people should have a license to have children, same could be said for blogs.

  6. Anonymous said

    I appreciate the support, Blue, but you may want to cut back on the caffeine a bit. 😉

    And I don’t look too kindly on proposals to license ”’anything”’ — certainly not speech.

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