By John Earley
31 May 2005
You would be forgiven for believing that infrared data connectivity
has been sidelined by the arrival of radio frequency wireless Lan
standards-based equipment, which has enjoyed phenomenal exponential
growth in recent years. But with more than 500 million infrared
interfaces shipping each year, it clearly dwarfs WLan in the volume
And don't assume that this market is sustained by remote- control
units, for nearly half of the interfaces shipped conform to the
Infrared Data Association (IRDA) standard, which clearly targets data
Famously associated with applications such as personal digital
assistant to laptop synchronisation, PDA business card exchange and
short-haul mobile phone data transfer; IRDA, with its short range and
relatively low 4mbps throughput, was understandably discounted by the
IT community as irrelevant for WLan application.
Infrared has squared up to recent competition from Bluetooth, an
alternative radio frequency communications standard designed to
support similar connectivity to IRDA. Simple set-up and good
reliability initially secured IRDA's popularity over Bluetooth. More
recently, questions about Bluetooth's inherent insecurity have
reinforced IRDA's popularity.
IRDA, with its range limit of 1m and inability to penetrate walls, is
extremely secure. Bluetooth, on the other hand, is mired in
controversy, with numerous hacking stories and reminders to users to
disable it when not in use. But really, the battle with Bluetooth is
small beer in comparison with the prize of ubiquitous connectivity on
which IRDA is focused.
IRDA is on the move, with activity and initiatives that are likely to
further increase the already significant number of unit shipments.
Moreover, emerging applications will cause pause for thought and
re-evaluation of infrared and its benefits for widespread data
This even applies to WLan, particularly where security is paramount or
third-party interference is affecting the user experience.
The infrared supplier community has embraced the challenge to deliver
data rates in excess of 100mbps, with talk of possibly achieving
500mbps to accommodate a wide range of imaginative applications for
which real demand has already been identified in Japan and the Far
Two immediate applications that are set to transform our lives are
multimedia file transfers and electronic funds transfer at the point
Fast-connect methods allow near instant exchange of high-definition
photos between digital cameras, phones, PDAs and, potentially,
television sets over infrared transmissions. An interface to
television sets of the future will enable home users to simply view
their photo albums through their TV where the whole family can gather
Next generation multimedia file transfer will be more demanding of
technology than traditional Jpeg photos or short audio files and ring
In the near future consumers will be able to download video films from
kiosks, which are already being designed and built and will soon be
installed at stores, railway stations and airports. The video rental
industry is preparing for change far more significant than the recent
migration from video tape to DVD.
The concept is simple. Before embarking upon a journey the consumer
downloads a film to their phone or PDA for viewing en route. Both
radio frequency WLan and Bluetooth are inappropriate vehicles, since
it would not take long for people to work out how to share a single
Infrared, on the other hand, cannot permeate walls or physical
barriers and, with the IRDA specification limiting range to 1m, it is
ideal for this application. Of course the size of the files in
question renders a throughput of 4mbps or 16mbps inadequate, but with
potential data rates exceeding 100mbps in the relatively near future
IRDA is set to offer sufficient performance to satisfy users rushing
for planes and trains. In making a quantum leap in data rates, IRDA
has not forgotten the mantra of low power consumption, essential for
portable equipment, and another area in which it scores over radio
It is not unreasonable to assume that the same application will
migrate to set-top TV boxes where a home user will be able to point a
phone or PDA and upload a film for viewing later. When combined with
the digital wallet of the future the commercial opportunities are
For this vision to become reality it will be necessary for IRDA to
review its commitment to short range, but there are pressures to do so
from a variety of sources.
The mobile phone is fast becoming a digital wallet. If you browse the
menu of a modern device, you will see options to store credit card
details. At first glance this would appear to be a useful data
back-up. However, trials already under way in Japan point to a more
Currently you carry a wad of credit cards with magnetic stripes and
intelligent chips, storing information that allows you to purchase
goods and services. In addition to your credit/debit card details,
other information that could easily be stored on your phone might
include passes for public transport, discount tokens and
At the point of sale, you will point and shoot your digital wallet to
an Epos terminal, a vending machine, car parking barrier, railway
station access gate etc, to pay.
There are strong return on investment arguments to support the
business case. Retailers are excited by the opportunity to speed up
transactions at the point of sale and, along with the banking
fraternity, see obvious benefits in digital receipts that will be
issued to your phone as opposed to the paper-based, easily misplaced
From a consumer standpoint, ease of use (imagine never having to
queue for a train or bus ticket) coupled with the potential personal
money management programs that will doubtless accompany the
technology, make the proposition equally attractive.
IRDA has a special interest group targeting this initiative. The group
is already in collusion with other standards bodies, including retail
and banking consortia to ensure a universal, dependable and secure
With security clearly paramount, IRDA wins out as the obvious
communications medium with its high speed, low distance and limited
field of view, coupled with a low power consumption rate. IRDA has
obvious security attractions that cannot be matched by WLan or
Considerable work has been completed by the infrared financial
messaging group and trials are under way. Commercially available RS232
to IRDA adaptors ensure low-cost easy upgrade of existing Epos
terminals and vending equipment.
For sceptics concerned about the ramifications of having a phone
stolen it is worth noting that the pilot projects are largely taking
place in Japan, where the 40 million strong mobile phone user base is
less concerned about phone theft. In any event, it is arguably much
easier for credit to be abused with card-based systems than it will be
with a digital wallet.
A number of emerging applications are likely to move IRDA to endorse a
variety of standards in much the same way that the IEEE concerns
itself with multiple media for data communications.
A practical TV-based photo album, for example, is likely to see
consumers demanding communications distances greater than 1m to allow
the family to sit around the living room for the show.
Pointing and uploading Powerpoint slides one at a time to projectors
will doubtless need to afford the presenter an opportunity to move
around a stage at will, once again giving cause for reviewing
extensions to the 1m limit.
An application that has been presented to IRDA supporting distances of
300m or more is already being embraced by highways agencies in Korea,
Europe and the US that are seeking low-cost dependable methods for
collecting motorway tolls.
To date, radio frequency products have dominated this market, but
there are attractions to infrared. The lower cost of communications
components is not lost on agencies or consumers.
Equally important is modern infrared technology's tolerance to
third-party interference, notably metallic elements in windscreens,
which have the propensity to block radio frequency communication. Add
your electronic wallet and it becomes clear that infrared should be
actively considered for longer-range communications, which leads to
the potential for a WLan architecture based on infrared.
About six years ago, I extolled the virtue of infrared WLan at an
international press symposium, only to be largely dismissed by a
community naturally excited by the success of emerging radio frequency
standards. But with the throughput achievements that I predicted at
the time now becoming a reality, it begs the question what advantages
infrared WLan could bring over radio frequency alternatives.
Radio frequency WLans are not utopian. There is third-party
interference from microwave ovens, Dect phones and Bluetooth devices.
There are security concerns surrounding an inability to trap radio
waves within a building, and there are spectrum planning challenges
coming to the fore as we begin to saturate the airwaves.
Infrared cannot penetrate walls, and this gives a high degree of
control over data leakage. It is not subject to spectrum restrictions,
as is the case with radio frequency communications, alleviating much
of the potential radio planning hassle.
Until now data rates, range and field of view limitations have made
IRDA-based technology unsuitable for WLan applications. But with the
prospect of these issues being addressed in a standards-compliant
manner there is a distinct possibility that low-cost infrared products
will emerge, where it will have particular appeal in certain
Within military and other high security environs, high-speed infrared
WLan offers ease of secure implementation.
In hospitals, aircraft and other applications where third-party
equipment is sensitive to radio frequency interference, an infrared
WLan can be safely and easily deployed.
And who knows, once infrared WLan equipment becomes commercially
available it is not inconceivable that the low-cost arch- itecture of
the communications system may make the apparently collapsed prices of
radio frequency WLan equipment today seem outrageously expensive.
John Earley is general manager at wireless research firm Supergold
What is IRDA and what is it for?
The Infrared Data Association is a membership-based organisation.
It was founded in 1993 and is dedicated to developing standards for
wireless, infrared transmission systems between computers.
IRDA ports fitted to a laptop or personal digital assistant can
exchange data with a desktop computer or use a printer without a cable
Just as a TV remote control requires line-of-sight access, IRDA
transmissions are restricted by obstacles and walls, which can be a
The IRDA serial infrared physical layer provides a half-duplex
connection of up to 115.2kbps. At this speed a low-cost chip can be
used, although more expensive, high-speed extensions up to 4mbps for
fast infrared have also been defined.
To enable the simultaneous handshaking and multiplexing of several
different data streams IRDA uses the infrared link access protocol and
the infrared link management protocol.
=A9 2004 ComputerWeekly.com Ltd.
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