The Body-to-Body Network: Where You, Personally, Become Part of the Internet

By using wearable sensors, you might become part of a new mobile internet network. Or so scientists envision.

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According to researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, using wearable sensors, ordinary people could create powerful new mobile Internet networks. Doing so, they say, could create new ultra high bandwidth mobile internet infrastructures and reduce the density of mobile phone base stations.

The idea isn't precisely new. At a Comdex keynote address in the mid-1990s, former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner predicted that using a mere handshake, it would be possible to relay GIFs, messages, and business cards — using a computer built into the heel of your shoe.

What's different is that scientists today are actively working on making body centric communications happen.

The engineers at researchers at Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) are investigating how small sensors carried by members of the public, in items such as next generation smartphones, could communicate with each other to create potentially vast body-to-body networks (BBNs). The sensors, says the University press release, would interact to transmit data, providing ‘anytime, anywhere’ mobile network connectivity.

If all goes as they plan, the technology may provide an alternative to Wireless Bridge technologies, according to the project overview (PDF), "allowing devices to seamless join to existing networks to become one network[,] reducing hardware complexity within the network and improving the overall functionality of a wireless network." Current projects are clustered around antennas and radiowave propagation for personal and vehicular communications, wireless networking protocol design and modeling, and low-power, low-cost radios. Applications range from RFID to wireless body area networks to wireless networked control to telemedicine, spanning UHF to mm-wave frequencies.

Well, that's the technical description (and you can read plenty more at the Wireless Group's website if you want more geeky details).

I'm more fascinated by the ways in which this might impact our lives.

We have been relying on sensors for all sorts of stuff for a long time, from the retail use of RFID tags to knowing when the next train is coming into the station to an acoustic early warning system for landslide prediction to home automation products, like the Black & Decker Kwikset SmartCode Deadbolt that enables the door lock to wirelessly communicate with other devices in the home. That's without taking into account the Adidas Intelligence shoe, that had a CPU inside (and was soon canceled, as apparently it didn't work quite right).

As Dr Simon Cotton, from ECIT’s wireless communications research group, sees it, body-to-body networks could result in social benefits, such as vast improvements in mobile gaming, remote healthcare, and precision monitoring of athletes. In a statement, he said, “The availability of body-to-body networks could bring great social benefits, including significant healthcare improvements through the use of bodyworn sensors for the widespread, routine monitoring and treatment of illness away from medical centres. This could greatly reduce the current strain on health budgets and help make the Government’s vision of healthcare at home for the elderly a reality.” He also envisions the possibility that BBNs could lead to a reduction in the number of base stations needed to service mobile phone users, particularly in areas of high population density.

But not all its uses are so serious. The scientists posit a "just for fun" scenario: "You are at a music festival and your friend is at the bar queuing for drinks. His favourite artist has just appeared on-stage for an impromptu performance with some other celebrities. You get out your smartphone and using BBN, you 'stream' the jam session live to your friend in the drinks queue. The information stream consists of short packets of video data that are passed person to person and routed to your friend’s smartphone. The other 'bodies' at the concert all contribute a little of their energy and bandwidth to achieve this but this does not require their explicit knowledge — the smartphone software looks after it. The alternative, of course, is to store the video on your phone, upload it to the Internet, text your friend who would then have to download it. Doing it this way however means you lose the spontaneity and fun! It also requires more power (long range links to the cellular network take more energy) and it would also use a lot of the cell network bandwidth - as the coverage is greater, the bandwidth cannot be re-used until your video is uploaded."

I certainly can imagine lots of wonderful uses for this technology. I can also amuse myself about the body-to-body network impact on fashion, if this takes off; have you ever contemplated the industry created around selling cool smartphone cases and iPod skins! But in the darkest hours of the night, I worry — just a bit — how someone can use this power for evil and not for good. SF authors certainly will.

How do you see this technology playing out?

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