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Hello? It's the future calling Add to ...

Think high-definition video conferencing. Think a virtual social club. Think Star Wars -esque 3-D holograms.

Now think all of that, powered by your cellphone.

In research divisions and university labs across the country, Canadians are part of a wave of innovation that's turning the mobile phone into a powerhouse polymath, with a goal of one day making the cell indistinguishable from the home computer.

"It'll be like a butler in your hand," says Paul Brannen, general manager of Samsung Canada's wireless division. "It'll do everything but tuck you in at night."

While so-called 3G, or third-generation phones - of which perhaps the most famous is Apple's iPhone - have been around for years in Japan and elsewhere, they're a relatively new phenomenon in much of North America. Even as consumers here revel in the widgets for their new phones, researchers are already working on standardizing 4G technology - the next generation of phones expected to hit by about 2015 and give users broadband download speeds just about anywhere.

But in a lab in Ottawa, a Carleton University professor is thinking even further ahead.

With the support of some eager manufacturers, including China's largest telecom company, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., Halim Yanikomeroglu is researching what a "beyond 4G" network would look like.

Currently, Dr. Yanikomeroglu says, cellphone signal quality is heavily dependent on the distance from the base stations that capture the signal.

"There's a big roadblock: If a user goes away from the base station, signal quality goes down; if you are further away from base station, the radio signal becomes weaker and cannot support very high rates."

Base stations are prohibitively expensive to build en masse, so Dr. Yanikomeroglu is looking at other solutions, such as "multi-hop" communication.

In this model, low-cost relays are affixed across a city - on lampposts, for example. Instead of travelling a long distance directly to a base station, the signal "hops" across relays, lessening the chance for the signal to lose quality.

At the extreme end of this model is what Dr. Yanikomeroglu describes as a sort of wireless mesh, where every mobile device acts as a kind of mini-relay, creating a massively powerful network able to handle such data-intensive applications as high-definition video conferencing or even hologram-based applications.

Even though those applications are still likely decades away, the near future for cellphones is also looking pretty futuristic.

Erick Tseng wants you to picture the following: You're in Manhattan for the first time. You pick up your cellphone and point its camera at a building. Your phone has location-sensing, so it knows where you are. It has a compass, so it knows which way you're pointing. It has an accelerometer, so it knows the angle you're pointing at. Information about the building pops up on your screen, superimposed on the structure you're looking at. What you're holding is less a cellphone and more a hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy.

Mr. Tseng is the lead product manager for Google Android - the search giant's operating system for cellphones. It's almost a part of his job description to dream up where the cell is going next - and the Manhattan building example is something he sees as possible in the next six to 24 months.

As they push these kinds of applications forward, developers and manufacturers are using the buzzword "convergence" a lot. Vlastimir Lalovic, Samsung's director of product realization, talks about cellphones that let you seamlessly download videos from YouTube and upload photos to Facebook, or remotely display images from a computer on another TV screen. Mr. Tseng talks about mashing up social and geographic data to host virtual meet-ups with people in the same location who share the same interests.

And behind all this innovation is the belief that in many parts of the world, regardless of the economic slump, the cellphone is the primary tool of communication. Indeed, Google's mobile team now divides the world into "first screen" and "second screen" countries - the latter include Canada, where the computer is the primary information and communication device. The former, a list that includes rapidly expanding markets such as India, are where users go to their cellphones first to access the wider world.

"In those countries, the phone is not a luxury good," Mr. Tseng says. "It is a requirement of life."

 

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