How A New Wi-Fi Standard Could Reshape The Future Of Gadgets


Ross Rubin

June 2, 2015

Today, the most prevalent standards for wireless local networking are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The former is primarily used for high-speed access within buildings, with good local range. The latter is a low-power enabler of short-range connectivity. For the most part, they have steered clear of each other’s domain. Bluetooth seems intent on chasing even lower-power applications with the ultra-battery-efficient Bluetooth LE, and Wi-Fi has historically aimed for ever higher speed.

Soon, though, a new Wi-Fi standard stands to become the fastest Wi-Fi ever—but at the price of reduced range. It’s called 802.11ad (previously WiGig). Unlike previous Wi-Fi incarnations that have operated in the very crowded 2.4 GHz band or the 5 GHz band, 802.11ad operates in the 60 GHz band. This allows it to achieve speeds of up to 7 Gbps, about 50 times faster than 802.11n.

The technology is so fast that it could enable whole new classes of devices.

Much of the early work in 60 GHz was focused on sending video signals wirelessly from devices such as tablets to TVs, and blistering short-range file transfers. 802.11ad can certainly handle such tasks. However, the technology is so fast that it could enable whole new classes of devices such as wireless hard drives that feel as fast as locally connected ones. As early as mid-2013, Dell shipped a wireless docking station using 802.11ad that was reviewed favorably, save for the scarcity of notebooks that also supported the networking technology.

802.11ad, though, literally has the potential to reshape the PC, especially in light of Microsoft directions such as its Continuum technology, which lets a PC adjust itself when its keyboard is removed, or a smartphone to act like a computer when attached to an external display. One of the issues with two-in-one laptop-tablet hybrids today is that the key electronics are all in the display, creating weight that must be counterbalanced by extra weight in the keyboard part, or a kickstand, such as in the Microsoft Surface.

802.11ad could enable a wireless extension of Windows 10′s Continuum feature.

With 802.11ad and Windows 10, separating a display from a keyboard might trigger the keyboard to connect to the display using 802.11ad. That way, the display could function like a tablet even if the computing were going on in lower parts of the clamshell that housed the processor and other electronics. (One disadvantage to this approach would be that the keyboard part would always need to stay within about 10 feet of the display, barring use of a network repeater.)

An even more radical notion of what 802.11ad could achieve has been proposed by the Neptune Suite, which recently concluded an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Today, companies such as Apple, Google, and Pebble have created smartwatch designs that are smartphone accessories. The Neptune smartwatch, however, is intended not just to be fully independent, but also to use 802.11ad to send its user interface to a phone-size or tablet-size display. The latter is designed to even dock into a keyboard for a full laptop experience.

The Neptune Hub smartwatch provides the brains for a family of computing devices.

To combat the extreme battery drain that powering such devices would create on a smartwatch-size battery, the tablet display, with its large battery, can be used to charge the smartwatch, making for a symbiotic relationship between the devices. (The watch’s companion wireless earbuds act as the charging cable—clever engineering, as long as you don’t lose them.)

On some level, it makes sense to put computing intelligence in the most omnipresent device. Doing so gives you access to the same apps and data regardless of the computing form factor. But many people would likely not want their laptop experience to be constrained to the tasks a smartwatch-class processor can reasonably perform.

Today, support for the 802.11ad standard is still rare, in part due to the expense of necessary chipsets. Still, Intel has been a strong proponent, and Qualcomm entered the market last summer with its purchase of 802.11ad pioneer Wilocity, which naturally complements Qualcomm’s existing Atheros Wi-Fi chip business. The ability for 802.11ad to zap user interfaces back and forth with ease could usher in new flexibility in devices by abstracting hardware from where the intelligence that powers them lives.

This article was written by Ross Rubin from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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