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Wi-Fi's Next Hot Spot: You

Wi-Fi, long known for extending the wired office to laptops, PDAs and street-level cafis, is developing its next platform. From badges to rings to jackets, Wi-Fi's next hot spot may be on your body.

The Sixth Annual International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) wrapped up Thursday at the University of Washington. One of the audience members using 802.11 to check his e-mail was ISWC spokesperson Wayne Piekarski of Australia.

"802.11 is the way you go about getting Internet access for laptops and wearables," says Piekarski.

Jackets and Badges

On the stage, members of MIT's Media Lab showed off the group's MIThril jacket. Taking its name from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the jacket "combines body-worn computation, sensing, and networking in a clothing-integrated design," according to the project.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) sponsor the ISWC gathering. Creators of the 802.11 wireless networking standard, the IEEE never envisioned 802.11 as a mobile technology, let alone wearable.

The first attempts at mobile Wi-Fi resulted in heavy, bulky phones with little consumer acceptance. Light years from the first designs is a communications device analysts liken to the badges worn by crew members of Star Trek's Enterprise (the one with Captain Picard). The first batch of Vocera Communications Badges aren't destined for crew members of a starship, but to store clerks in Minneapolis.

The device, looking more like a stapler than a badge, is four-inches long and weighing just 1.6 ounces. The unit includes two buttons: one for making a call and one for putting a caller on hold. There is an LCD readout on the back for text messages or for caller ID. A unidirectional microphone with a 12-inch range is included with a speaker or a headphone jack for privacy.

The badge is voice-activated, using speech recognition software from Nuance. The badges require Vocera's Server Software be installed to manage calls, users and connections. The badge does the job of an intercom system and can also interface with a company's internal PBX.

Badge of Success?

Analysts are looking to the badges to gauge the success of wearable Wi-Fi.

Brent Lang, Vocera's Vice President of Marketing, says the Cupertino, CA-based company is "swamped with interest" about what he calls the "first wearable Wi-Fi" product.

Lang says that interest is driven by Vocera's ability to overcome Wi-Fi's problems with power usage and lack of roaming. The badge's rechargeable Lithium Ion battery should keep a doctor or nurse in contact throughout a normal 12-hour shift, says Lang.

Why doctors and nurses? Nearly half of the inquiries about the badge come from the acute care units of hospitals, according to Lang, where cell phones have traditionally been banned out of concern the radio waves might interfere with medical equipment.

The Vocera badge would enable a nurse to remain on the floor with patients while talking to a doctor or would let the nurse page the doctor directly without notifying the entire facility.

The badges also have the ability to move throughout a building, roaming from one subnet to another without disconnecting.

The Future

Lang says future versions of the Vocera platform will include the ability for clerks to pull up price information or a medical worker to access patient records using portable, wearable devices. According to Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. Symbol Technologies already has a wireless ring-like bar code reader that might fit the bill.

While it may be a while before such wearable Wi-Fi makes it into the home, such applications are opening up new markets that once were hesitant about Wi-Fi, says Laszlo.

802.11 Planet Conference How can you effectively talk over a wireless 802.11 connection? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover Voice-Data Convergence on the WLAN.