Technology Reaches “Brave New World” Proportions—The Human Body as Broadband Connection
A new technology developed by a Japanese communications company called Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (“NTT”) uses the human body for broadband networking. More specifically, NTT’s RedTacton technology sends data over the surface of the skin at speeds equivalent to a fast broadband data connection.
Other companies, most notably, IBM and Microsoft, have done work in this field, but NTT is the first company to figure out how to transfer data over the skin without attaching transmitters to the human body. Instead, the transmitters can be built into devices such as an MP3 player or a cell phone and are effective within 20 centimeters of the human body. Using the RedTacton transceiver, data can be transmitted by touching, holding, sitting, walking, or stepping on a particular spot. Data can even travel through clothing and shoes.
The way the RedTacton technology works is by coupling a transmitter with weak electric fields on the surface of the body. These electric fields pass through the body to a RedTacton receiver, where they come into contact with an electro-optic crystal. A sensor then bounces a laser beam off the crystal and measures the reflected beam. The polarization of the reflected light is affected by oscillations in the electric fields surrounding the crystal; therefore, the electric fields that pass over the body influence the characteristics of the reflected beam. The reflected light is then
converted back into electric signals to receive the transmitted data. Sound like magic? The NTT technology is based on a technique called electric field photonics.
In terms of safety, according to NTT, the RedTacton transceiver electrodes are covered with an insulating film that prevents current from the transceiver from flowing into the user’s body upon contact. The company notes, however, that the RedTacton technology does create in the body the same level of weak induction current as cell phones.
NTT has several Japanese patents covering its technology and is “patent pending” in foreign countries. NTT’s technology is an improvement over previous technologies developed by Microsoft and IBM. In the mid-1990s, IBM developed the first personal area network (“PAN”). This PAN allowed two people to transmit business card information to each other electronically via a handshake. In June of 2004, Microsoft obtained a patent on a “method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body.” Microsoft’s patent, however, required a pair of electrodes to be attached to the body.
Why all this interest in PANs? Some feel these types of communications are more secure; others feel they have potential application in the medical device arena. Technology has already been developed that allows humans to communicate with computers using their thoughts only. What is clear is that we have entered a new world where humans and computers are linked more intimately than they ever have been before.