September 8th, 2004
Joe Markee wants your work ID card to initiate a game of whisper down the hall when you arrive at the employee entrance. By the time you take a few steps toward your desk, the card will activate a network of wireless transmitters in light switches, thermostats and other routine electronics, passing along instructions to turn on the lights and air-conditioning system in your work space.
Markee’s San Diego company, Figure 8 Wireless Inc., will unveil an early version of that system at DEMOmobile 2004, an annual wireless and mobile technology conference that begins today at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines. It ends Friday.
Figure 8 Wireless is one of about 40 companies to make the final cut from a field of several hundred DEMOmobile applicants. DEMOmobile, produced by IDG Executive Forums, is known as a somewhat exclusive conference that attracts top executives from around the country and is not open to the public.
Companies will take the wraps off new products in front of an audience of investors, analysts and executives from technology heavyweights such as Qualcomm, Microsoft, Motorola, Verizon and Nokia.
Figure 8 will demonstrate one of the first systems based on an emerging wireless technology called ZigBee.
“The idea is to allow wireless devices to interoperate with existing devices such as light controllers, smoke detectors and air-conditioning systems in the wired world,” said Markee, Figure 8′s chief executive.
In traditional wireless communication, a device can talk to only one other device at a time, Markee said.
With ZigBee, the tiny, low-power radios simultaneously communicate with several other radios, forming a network of hundreds of ZigBee devices scattered throughout a large building, or a dozen or so in a home, he said.
The technology was developed and promoted by the ZigBee Alliance, a group of small and large companies, including Honeywell, Motorola and Philips Electronics, as well as startups such as Figure 8 Wireless.
The technology takes its name from the way bees transmit a signal from the outside of a swarm to the inside, with many bees repeating the signal from the original sender.
The first ZigBee products are expected to be on the market next year.
While pricing has not yet been set, the ZigBee Alliance hopes the wireless devices would add only a dollar or so to the manufacturing cost of light switches and other devices.
At the conference, Figure 8 Wireless will demonstrate a prototype residential system linking a smoke detector, thermostat and light switch. The Zigbee network of devices will turn on the lights when the smoke detector senses a fire.
While Figure 8 Wireless’ system is based on a new technology, many of the other companies will show off innovative software and hardware for more established systems such as cell-phone networks, said Chris Shipley, the conference’s executive producer.
“There has been so much infrastructure put into place in recent years,” she said.
“Now we’re seeing a lot of interesting applications taking advantage of that infrastructure.”
For example, Palo Alto-based Vazu Inc. will unveil a system for sending contact information from Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail to cell phones.
Now that camera phones have become widespread, several companies have interesting mobile photography applications, Shipley said. OurPictures Inc., another Palo Alto firm, will demonstrate a system to send photos from a camera phone to a computer or television with a single click, instead of the half-dozen or more menu selections necessary on many camera phones today.
Massachusetts-based Mobot has a system to combine the Internet and camera phones for mobile commerce, an idea that was popular but never realized in the tech-boom years. Subscribers would be able to take a picture of an ad in a newspaper or magazine and e-mail it to Mobot. The company would research the product and provide price and other information to the subscriber. Some of the new products will be mobile, but not wireless, Shipley said.
With growing interest in devices such as Apple iPods and in music downloading services, companies will be targeting owners of portable audio players, she said.
AudioFeast of Mountain View has created a system to deliver more than 300 recorded news, sports and entertainment radio programs to MP3 owners.
Subscribers can listen to a favorite show when it’s convenient, Shipley said. “It’s like TiVo for the radio,” she said.
By Jonathan Sidener
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER