Wireless wonders

Wireless telegraphy isn’t difficult to understand, Albert Einstein once said.  The regular telegraph is like a very long cat; you pull its tail in New York and it meows in Los Angeles.  Wireless telegraphy is just the same, only without the cat.

That being the case, the world is filling with more and more non-existent cats, because wireless communication is the wave of the future–in fact, it’s more than just a ripple right now.

All wireless communication is, of course, based on radio, which works because, as Heinrich Hertz in 1866, electrical currents flowing in one set of wires generate electromagnetic waves that travel through the atmosphere at the speed of light and can set up matching electrical currents in another set of wires.

One new wireless gadget is a new take on the old walkie-talkie–something I always wanted as a kid. It’s called FRS, for Family Radio System, and it’s only been available in Canada since last April.

FRS radios, colorful and funky-looking (Rolling Stone called them “walkie-talkies on steroids”) have a range of about three kilometres (depending on terrain)–far more than the walkie-talkies of my youth. The longer range is a result of the higher frequency at which FRS operates.  (One reason FRS was available in the U.S. before it became available in Canada is that the companies that held the rights to the frequencies at which FRS operates had to be convinced to move to other frequencies.)  FRS uses 14 channels and multiple sub-channels, providing several hundred different frequencies.

FRS is great for skiers, hunters and fisherman, for people in shopping malls who want to keep track of each other, or for keeping track of kids at an amusement park.  Some people use them while traveling; they’re good for about a kilometre vehicle-to-vehicle.  Their advantage over cell phones is that they’re cheap and there’s no fee; the disadvantage, obviously, is the limited range.

Other cool wireless gadgets on the market include Personal Data Assistants (PDAs), such as Palm Pilots and Handsprings, that can send and receive wireless messages, telephone calls and Web pages. We’re going to see more and more overlap and cross-functioning among electronic devices–pagers that receive e-mail, telephones that let you surf the Web, etc., FRS radios with Global Positioning Satellite technology included.

As technology advances, more and more information will be able to be sent wirelessly. Your favorite singer has just released a new single? Your Internet Service Provider wirelessly and automatically uploads a sample of the song or even the video to your PDA or cell phone. You listen to it (or watch it) at your leisure, then buy it on the spot if you wish.

Wireless technology could make it easier to buy lots of things on the spot: PDAs and cell phones could supplement your wallet. In a trial in Amsterdam, drivers dial one phone number when they park, and another when they drive away. The required parking fee is automatically taken from their account–no parking tickets!

Your PDA could easily contain all the information you’re currently carrying in the form of umpteen plastic and paper discount cards, all of which have to be punched or stamped or swiped. If you were a business traveler, any expenses paid using your PDA could be automatically routed to your expense account.  The point-of-sale terminal in the store could even connect to the Internet and download any new messages or synchronize your calendar while you shopped. 

Japan has the world’s biggest Net-linking mobile phone market, with some 30 million users.  There, everyone is trying to come up with wilder and wilder wireless gadgets.

One is a Dick-Tracyesque wristwatch cell-phone with a tiny video screen and attached digital camera.  Take a picture of yourself or anything else, then send it to someone else’s cell phone or to a computer. You can even hook up a tiny printer.

The Japanese see the entertainment value of wireless technology; in North America, people tend to focus on the commercial possibilities.  Tests have revealed most people don’t want to shop for, say, a new shirt while riding the subway.  But they might be interested in downloading the latest tunes or checking the sports scores.

However it all works out, I hope the effort to produce a wireless world is more successful than the effort to produce a paperless office–otherwise, in a few years, we’re all going to be up to our knees in wires.

Or possibly invisible cats.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2001/05/wireless-wonders/

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