IEEE specs way to turn body into a network
New body area network is more reliable, better for hospitals, works on more than just headsets
Please don't take this personally, but the largest, most sophisticated organization devoted to creating open standards, open debate and resolution of divisive issues and the peaceful interoperation of all things digital just declared your body non-standard.
Not yours particularly. They didn't use names or anything, so you could go on believing they're not talking about you.
They are talking about everyone else, though. When someone sets a new standard, all the old stuff is just obsolete. Nothing to be done about it.
"They", btw, are the IEEE, which is responsible for thousands of standard technical specifications covering everything from wireless networking to the design and operation of nuclear power plants.
Today IEEE announced a new technical specification designed to connect all the arsenal of devices that weigh you down like Batman with a low visual impact, and wrap you in a trivial fog of mobile data that stretches out behind you like a comet's tail like the smell of ashes and disappointment trailing a dedicated smoker.
Today IEEE created issues the specification slated to become the standard for how low-power, short-range, semi-convenient, partially interconnectable devices should be linked among the many pockets and parcels of the average geek, creating from a host of disconnected devices and single doughily mobile technologist a Body Area Network that is not now and never was as silly as it might sound.
Unlike most sarcasm, that last sentence was literally true. Body area networking, personal area networks and various other terms for making cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, teenagers and other faulty electronicized devices share data among themselves is at least as useful as Bluetooth. It's probably not quite as useful as USB, except for the possibility BAN offers to get rid of the wires in USB and let your laptop talk to the humping-dog flash drive without physically touching it, which is what it would tell you it prefers if weren't too busy staring into the heart of the Internet all the time to tell you that's what it would want.
At the very mention of the new specification – IEEE 802.15.6-2012 – one's imagination leaps to places where the sky is always sunny and bandwidth is always broad. It does that to keep the uber-geeky title from weighing it down so much it could never network across and air gap, let alone around and through the mass of meat pie that is the closest guess most gadgets can manage about what's inside a geek as well as outside.
802.16.6-2012, the Body Area Networking standard got lots of early moral support from gadget makers, bionic-geek-wannabes, do-it-yourself audio- and data-philes as well as road warriors and mobile-data gurus hoping to be able to keep syncing after losing all the expensive, inconvenient wires that have made their lives a … well, a smidge less convenient than they would be otherwise.
IEEE 802.15.6-2012 provides "myriad opportunities to create a wide variety of new products and capabilities aimed at enhancing people’s comfort and well being in ways we can only begin to imagine," according to Art Astrin, chair of the IEEE 802.15.6 Task Group.
The new BAN spec is designed for ultra-short range ("close to or inside a human body"), low power, data rates up to 10 Mbit/sec, the ability to overcome radio or magnetic interference, need for secure encryption and the reliability of a networking protocol that double-checks the contents and arrival of packets, as wired Ethernet does.
Body networks are for more than just MP3s and gaming
However, the new BAN spec wasn't created just to make it easier to copy a playlist from your iPod to your iPhone.
It supports the specific parts of the radio spectrum reserved for medical or regulatory authorities and devices and supports quality-of-service (QoS) requirements that would allow for connections to devices less consciously designed for the failure of networks around them than the iPod.
The BAN spec does allow for the interconnection of entertainment devices, but is also designed for secure, reliable network connections among medical diagnostic, treatment and testing devices, collection agents that gather telemetry from medical monitors and sends it off for remote diagnosis, connect to glucose sensors and dispensers or other devices inserted under a patient's skin.
IEEE 802.15.6-2012 "underscores our commitment to the realization of a true body area network to meet the challenges of achieving far-ranging and futuristic solutions for healthcare, prosthetics, implants and a variety of novel consumer uses," Astrin said in the IEEE announcement of the new BAN.
IEEE started work on the standard in 2008, but has been racing in its development with medical systems manufacturers who got a huge boost in business after the Obama administration assigned $14 billion of the 2009 economic recovery package to promote the digitization and modernization of U.S. hospitals.
So, while wearable computers and the personal area network has been diagrammed, imagined, pitched and even built and sold as everything from MP3 surround-sound to the next generation of a digitized military, IEEE decided to rain on everyone's parade by producing a spec that will answer the quickly growing need to network smart monitors to help automate healthcare and allow devices to share data so it won't have to be written down by hand on a patient chart in doctor-chickenscratch, rather than just allow MP3 surround-sound. As if that's a small thing.
Of course it is. BANs already exist, in the form of Bluetooth-based droppy, slow, inconsequential connections among one or two (usually just one) devices.
They're just not very good, beyond keeping douchey strangers connected to headsets that work well enough except for the requirement that users shout their end of a conversation directly into the ear of the person nearest them.
Better than Bluetooth, but not replacing it, yet
BAN is designed to be a little more quiet, a little more reliable, and a little more appropriate for machines whose ever light-blink and random beep might communicate something important about the health of a person we care about, not just blink an inappropriately bright blue LED from some jerk's headset into the eyeballs of all the people sitting behind him in the movie theater wishing popcorn were either heavy or sharp enough to have a real impact when it's thrown.
Unfortunately, the BAN won't ban the PAN; 802.15.5-2012 is designed to work with Bluetooth, not replace it right away.
If it can pass messages even a little better than a five-year-old with a crayon and a stack of Post-Its, however, it won't take long for people to sling Bluetooth on the trash heap and pick up BAN instead.
The specs are a little thin on what kind of body the IEEE requires as the mobile platform for that body area networks, let alone what would happen to the body.
Presumably most of the spec compliance efforts will focus on the hardware, however, not on getting somewhat pudgy, sedentary wetware to comply with the IEEE's concept of what an efficient mobile network platform would really be.
Even when you get to set the rules and the standards, it helps to show a little compassion to those whose physical presence you've made obsolete.
And by that I mean Bluetooth, not pudgy geeks. Bluetooth can take care of itself; pudgy geeks need mutual support. Especially when an association as exacting as IEEE is going around judging whether we'd qualify or not as the carrier of a micro-network serving only us.
They're so judgmental.
Members of MIT 'Safety Net' with early versions of wearable computers, circa 1996. Credit: Steve Mann