‘Smart’ people - the future of mobile wireless networking

Recent years have seen significant uptake of 'smart' phones where the end user has access to a host of different functionality such as email, internet and multimedia including on-board high definition (HD) video cameras. New innovations in this area will see the form factor of smart devices being modified, so that they may be worn on the human body or integrated into clothing (Fig. 1), in the process creating a new generation of ‘smart’ people. This explosion of intelligent technology and its associated high bandwidth requirements will place increased strain on already overburdened mobile wireless networks. High demand for data services is already being experienced in densely populated areas such as city centres, concert and sports venues and transportation hubs for example rail stations and airports.

Network and service providers are currently trying to meet these needs through the introduction of long term evolution (LTE) and WiMax technologies which aim to provide individual networks users with multi-megabit data rates. While network operators continue to plan for the fourth generation (4G) of cellular wireless standards, another as of yet unexplored possibility which may help to sustain high data rates and extend the range of infrastructure networks is to use the network users themselves as simplified ad hoc base stations.

This will be achieved by creating vast body-to-body networks (BBNs) of interlinked wireless devices, carried, worn or integrated into clothing. These networks will allow data to be routed from person to person before being forwarded to the recipient or the relevant infrastructure network if necessary.

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Figure 1. Example of wearable wireless node with flexible antenna which is designed to be integrated into clothing.

To illustrate the concept of a BBN and how it could be used to support mobile communications, consider the simple, but relatively common scenario depicted in Fig. 2 (a). Here we have two cellular network users who wish to transfer data (e.g. video, music or just social networking information) to one another within the same network cell. Using traditional cellular architecture, the data originating from person A would be routed through the local base station to person B. Now consider the identical communications process, whereby person A wishes to send data to person B who is still within the locality except this time, they will use a BBN to cooperatively relay the data. This scenario is shown in Fig. 2 (b), where instead of uploading the data to the nearby base station person A transmits the data over a much shorter distance to other BBN users in local vicinity. The data is then routed through the BBN until it reaches the intended recipient, person B.

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Figure 2. (a) Data communications between two cellular network users, persons A and B, who are within the same network cell, (b) the identical communications process, except this time the data is transferred using a BBN.

Among the key benefits of body-to-body networking are that it provides the opportunity for both multicasting and multiplexing of the data. Whereby, in the case of multicasting, multiple copies of the data are sent purposely to multiple recipients whereas in multiplexing, used for example in large file transfer (e.g. HD video), the data may be broken into smaller components by the sender’s smart device before taking separate network paths through the BBN and being reassembled by the recipient.

In the creation of body-to-body networks there will be many issues that will impact the design of physical and medium access layers. For example, to optimise hardware and transmission schemes to be used in wireless systems it is necessary to develop an understanding of the relevant communications channel. To this end, my Philip Leverhulme Prize fund will be used to investigate channel and performance issues associated with the formation of BBNs. Key to this will be a thorough understanding of the role of physiological and biomechanical processes in determining the channel characteristics of body centric systems. The prize will also enable me to assess the suitability of cutting edge technologies such as multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) and ultra-high bandwidth communications at 60 GHz for use in body centric systems.

Dr Simon Cotton
Queen’s University Belfast

Simon was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2011; providing £70,000 over 36 months.