Tuesday, October 13. 2009
I and my 16-year old son just passed the amateur radio Extra Class license examination. The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions covering topics including FCC rules, electrical principles, components, circuits, measurements, protocols, antennas, and radio propagation. We spent about two months working our way through the ARRL Extra Class License Manual—and it paid off.
It might seem like amateur (“ham”) radio is a dying hobby. Once upon a time, hams were privileged to make mobile phone calls. Now everyone has cell phones. In the old days, hams communicated around the world using shortwave radio. Now everyone has the Internet. When I earned my first license in the 1960s, hams had to learn the Morse code. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated Morse code proficiency requirements.
Despite these seismic technological and cultural changes, amateur radio has managed to survive. Why? First and foremost, the ham radio community is a bastion of acceptance, camaraderie, and public service. (You may meet better dressed people, but you probably won’t meet nicer people.) Second, the hobby has evolved in step with technology. Personal computers, digital transmission, the Internet, and space communications are now thriving aspects of amateur radio.
PSK31, one of the new digital modes, permits text chat between amateur radio operators worldwide. It uses just 31.25 Hertz of bandwidth, so several PSK31 channels can fit within a conventional (single sideband) voice channel. Hams can start using PSK31 by connecting a PC’s sound card to the microphone input of a high frequency (HF) transceiver and downloading the appropriate software.
Echolink enables amateur radio operators to communicate through the Internet using voice over IP. Hams may make contacts either directly through their PCs or via a VHF or UHF radio to an Internet-connected PC. The Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) connects amateur radio stations via the Internet using voice over IP. Using these two systems in tandem, amateur radio operators can communicate worldwide from almost anywhere.
Hams can also communicate via OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) and with the International Space Station (ISS). While a sophisticated antenna capable of tracking orbiting stations is preferable, it’s possible to (briefly) contact an orbiting station with just a handheld radio.
According to the International Amateur Radio Union, there are currently about 3 million amateur radio operators worldwide. The number of hams in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1970. However, not all of the news is good. The number of hams in the U.S. has been slowly declining in recent years, and the U.S. ham population appears to be aging.
I suspect that in the future amateur radio will enjoy the support of two different types of participants. One group will concentrate on keeping the old radio arts alive: Morse code, antenna design and construction, and so forth. The other group will continue to integrate amateur radio with the latest technologies to create new and unique capabilities such as echolink and IRLP.
This post is the final installment in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses, published in 2008.
Most Creative People Are Not Team Players
I’ve read a number of books about creativity, and my research tells me that most of them are wrong. The authors go on and on about things such as collaboration, juxtaposition of ideas, and looking for patterns. There may be some truth in what they say, but they miss the point.
The simple truth: most creative people are highly individualistic.
A recurring lesson from the history of wireless is that creative people don’t accept conventional wisdom. As inventor Edwin H. Armstrong was fond of saying, “It ain’t ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It’s the things people know that ain’t so.” For example, Armstrong invented frequency modulation (FM) radio after a respected Bell Labs engineer said it wasn’t worth doing.
Creative people don’t have to be right about everything. James Clerk Maxwell’s theory correctly predicted electromagnetic waves. But it was based on the false assumption that space is permeated with a medium for the waves to propagate through—the luminiferous ether.
There are a couple of myths that need to be dispelled. One is that not knowing too much can help—that people who are too well trained develop blind spots. My research suggests the exact opposite. It’s the people who know a field inside and out who are most likely to push beyond its existing limits.
Another myth is that great ideas sometimes just come to discoverers and inventors by chance. Scientists and inventors will often tell you that, but it’s not true. The typical story goes like this: “I was working on idea x for a long time without making progress. So I decided to give it a rest. A little while later, the solution suddenly popped into my mind.” The lesson is that creative ideas don’t just roll off an assembly line. They may need to percolate for a while. I don’t call that luck—I call it checking back later.
A particularly popular myth is that new technologies can’t take off until there are industry-wide standards. This confuses cause and effect. The standards-setting process is extremely political and companies often use it to jockey for better position. If a small company invents a better mouse trap, then the first thing the market leaders will do is call for a standard. At a minimum, it buys them time to catch up. If they are shrewd, they can use the standards-setting process to offset or completely undermine the newcomer’s competitive advantage.
The final lesson is that timing is everything. This is something Thomas Edison understood quite well. It’s not enough to have a great idea; it has to be the right idea at the right time. Nor does the best technology always succeed. Sometimes just good enough for the moment wins.
Coming: The History & Future of Medical Technology
Sunday, October 4. 2009
This post is the thirteenth in a series based on my book, The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses. Next week I’ll wrap up the series with some thoughts about human creativity.
Wireless: The Next Generation
Creators of the 1960s television series Star Trek guessed that centuries of technological development would yield clamshell devices that look much like today’s mobile phones. But don’t be fooled: Star Trek communicators use subspace (faster than light) transmission to communicate at great distances with zero latency. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, handheld communicators are replaced with badge communicators featuring a built-in, universal language translator.
However, strip away subspace transmission and the universal translator, and you are left with a phone that even today’s entry-level users in developing countries would look down on.
What, if anything, did Star Trek’s creators miss? I predict that in two or three centuries communicators will include a computer-brain interface for the ultimate in multimedia communications... with selectable background, theater, and being there modes, of course.
Getting back to Earth… Today’s mobile phones range from ultra low cost units (free to subscribers and a throwaway after two years) supporting voice and text messaging to mid-range multimedia phones with built-in digital cameras and color displays to smart phones designed to interoperate with desktop PCs and the Web. Over the next five years, expect mobile phones at all price levels to become more intelligent, more multimedia, and more interconnected with other devices, networks, and services.
Video displays for mobile phones are evolving along multiple paths. The main challenges are achieving an acceptable viewing experience while minimizing power consumption and cost. Three development paths that look promising (and that I discuss in the book) are: displays that use ambient light, projection displays, and retinal projection displays.
Another challenge for small mobile devices is ease of use. Telephone keypads are fine for entering numbers, but cumbersome for entering text. Some handsets feature voice recognition capability, though it’s most reliable for specific functions such as dialing numbers and accessing address book entries. Indexing software will help users quickly find and use handset functions. For example, when the user enters the word “camera” a menu of camera tasks appears. The key to positive user experiences is minimizing the number of key clicks required per task.
Unfortunately, battery technology is evolving more slowly than electronics. Most recent improvements in battery life have been achieved through greater semiconductor integration and better power management. Though fuel cells promise up to a 20x improvement over lithium-ion batteries, they require complex “micro-plumbing” and are years away from general use.
What about the radio technology? Wireless entrepreneurs have long dreamed of using wireless to replace wires. However, the dream has been thwarted by a persistent performance gap. When wireless LANs were introduced in the early 1990s, most could not deliver one-tenth the throughput of inexpensive Ethernet LANs running 10 megabits/s over twisted pair cables. As wireless LANs slowly climbed to 10 megabits/s, wired LANs raced ahead to even faster speeds: Fast Ethernet (100 megabits/s), Gigabit Ethernet, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Greg Raleigh realized that with the proper signal processing algorithms and multiple antennas at both ends of a wireless link, multipath propagation (normally an impairment) could be harnessed to dramatically increase the speed and range of wireless LANs. Raleigh’s MIMO (pronounced my-moh) technology is the centerpiece of the new 802.11n wireless LAN standard, supporting speeds up to 600 megabits/s, and a key component of fourth generation (4G) mobile phone standards. MIMO technology will enable home entertainment networks and make mobile multimedia more affordable.
Two new short-range wireless technologies look promising: ultra wideband (UWB) and near field communications (NFC). Ultra wideband uses narrow pulses or very wide channels (>500 MHz) to send data at high speeds without interfering with other devices and services. Speeds in the gigabit/s range are possible.
While UWB can be used for specialized applications such as radar and medical diagnostics, it offers a Bluetooth-on-steroids capability for mobile handsets. UWB is being embraced for transferring multimedia content between handsets and PCs; using handsets to drive large video displays; personal area social networking between handsets; and handset-to-kiosk communications. WiMedia is an ultra wideband-based standard that has been selected by both the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) and the USB Implementers Forum as the foundational technology for their high-speed wireless solutions.
Do handsets really need a short-range wireless link running hundreds of megabits per second or faster? It’s all about quick content transfers. For example, assume a user wants to download several albums of music from a PC to a handset or PDA before heading out the door. It will take several minutes at Bluetooth speeds, but mere seconds at UWB data rates.
NFC supports wireless communications at very short distances (up to about ten inches), primarily for secure transactions. The NFC-equipped handset is waved past or tapped against a point of sale terminal, a vending machine, or a poster equipped with a tiny NFC chip. For example, NFC can be used to pay tolls or download URLs for further information.
Wireless may reach a technology plateau at some point down the road. But for now, I see only accelerated evolution ahead.
Next time: Lessons in Creativity
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