Ultrawideband in one chip moves industry towards greater possibilities: WisAir announced the immediate availability of UWB on a single chip. This is likely the first of many such announcements, as UWB moves from an "almost here" technology to one that could be pervasively available. Its success in the market is still unknown--how much do you hate USB cables? Other UWB offerings use two chips, which adds cost, complexity, and power drain. Wi-Fi didn't start hitting gadgets until chipmakers had single-chip packages with a lot of networking bits also built into that single chip; and 802.11g didn't supplant 802.11b in gadgets until makers had efficient single chips for it, too.
The WisAir offering is legal in the U.S. and Japan. One of UWB's key hurdles is international regulation, with different regulatory domains allowing different frequency ranges to be used by UWB; UWB requires large swaths of spectrum to transmit ultra-brief, ultra-low-power signals. The low power also means low range, but with 480 Mbps within a few meters and step-down speeds beyond that to 100 feet or more, that's probably good enough. And that's just the first version of UWB that will ship. If regulators add frequencies or allow higher power, or the inevitable improvements in the spec occur, short-range speeds could top a gigabit per second.
The WisAir chips use WiMedia and USB Implementors Forum (USB-IF) Wireless USB standards. WisAir can't claim Certified Wireless USB status at the moment, but WisAir's director of business development and marketing Serdar Yurdakul said in an interview that "devices supporting our chips will be certified in the short term." A handful of devices now sport the certified label; none are yet shipping.
While other protocols will follow (including Bluetooth, TCP/IP, and FireWire/IEEE 1394), Wireless USB is an important first step because it's so straightforward for existing products with USB to use much of the same conceptual and programming infrastructure to supplement or replace wired USB with wireless.
Yurdakul said that WisAir's implementation offers automatic, dynamic channel selection among the several available to UWB. Because UWB is such a short-range technology, the odds of overwhelming the available frequency/channel combinations is pretty unlikely in each cell. The implementation also offers "automatic rate adaptation." Combined, products with a WisAir UWB chip should find the optimum speed and channel on an ongoing basis. The chip can adapt to interference or obstructions in the environment within hundreds of milliseconds, Yurdakul said, without losing connectivity.
"Any legacy device today you have on your desktop can be enabled with Wireless USB," Yurdakul said. "It just pops into your USB port, and existing drivers you have already, it uses as is. You don't have to add new drivers. The downside, is that performance suffers a little bit." That will change over time as PC makers add UWB as a built-in radio with native drivers.
WisAir expects that its chip will be used in both PCs and devices in this early stage, however. Specialization among UWB chipmakers will happen later with some choosing to focus just on the device market, as has been the case with other technology that winds up getting embedded in Intel reference designs and Apple computers. Several Wi-Fi chipmakers have found limited but deep markets with PC makers as an alternative to Intel's Wi-Fi products, but the greatest number of Wi-Fi chips (as with UWB chips) will be in gadgets in the near future.
Because UWB has such high performance over short distances, Yurdakul sees the technology used for simultaneous HD streams and Dolby 7.1 audio, as well as the more mundane cable replacement purpose in portable and fixed devices, like cameras and printers. UWB has built-in quality of service settings that allow a device to ask for specific latency and error correction on an "isochronous" channel--that's real time data in the case of streaming audio and video.
UWB also has a fairly high power advantage because even though network protocols will be adapted to it, it's designed as a paired technology with two devices talking to each other. Yurdakul said that WisAir's chips have a 30fold power advantage, bit for bit, compared to Bluetooth or 802.11g. It's the nature of UWB's low power and bursty transmissions that allow this savings.
WisAir is shipping samples now to manufacturers, with quantities available in fourth quarter. Pricing is expected to hit $15 when volumes are produced. That means that a $100 camera will likely not sport UWB in the near future, but it's a reasonable option for a $500 as PCs start to include UWB.