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The R&D Mobile Team goes to CES

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Steve Jolly Steve Jolly | 15:00 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

One of the ways a small research team like those at BBC R&D can try and influence a large industry cost-effectively is to take a prototype - or even a simple proof-of-concept demo - to a conference, trade show or other industry gathering. If you can get the right people excited about your vision of the future, that vision is far more likely to come about. That's exactly what my colleague Jerry Kramskoy had the opportunity to do at CES this year. We were invited (and subsidised) by UK Trade & Investment's Digital Communications Knowledge Transfer Network to give a demonstration on their stand.

One of the technologies we think has real promise for improving the experience of mobile phone use in the home is the Femtocell. Right now they're mostly being marketed as a way to improve in-home signal quality, but there's no purely technical reason why the technology couldn't be used to give home network access to phones connected to that home's Femtocell. (Some phones can already get access to home networks using Wi-Fi of course.) In contrast to Wi-Fi, Femtocells operate in managed spectrum, so there should be fewer interference issues when multiple networks are operating in the same area. In addition, Femtocells may be able to give a better quality of service to individual devices, since mobile phone base-stations are more proactive than Wi-Fi access points when it comes to managing the allocation of spectrum between the devices that connect to them.

For our demo at CES, we wanted to demonstrate that Femtocells are a completely viable way of delivering streaming video from a home network to multiple phones simultaneously. We certainly didn't expect to make headlines with that demonstration and we didn't, but it's an important step towards establishing the viability of Femtocells as a key component of a media-capable home network. We also wanted to get people thinking and talking about the possibilities that the technology implies for the home media experience. I'm pleased to be able to say that we achieved both goals.

Running Darwin Streaming Server on a computer connected to the Femtocell via a router, taking the role of a home media server, we set up a streaming video service with material taken from recent productions by our brilliant colleagues in the Natural History Unit. Linked to from a simple web server running on that same computer, getting the video streams up and running on the phones was as simple as pointing their built-in web browsers at that server and clicking the links. The Femtocell, a model lent to us by Ubiquisys, was more than capable of transmitting the video streams to three phones simultaneously, at a bitrate per stream of 300kiB/s (giving good quality on the relatively small mobile phone screens). Indeed, the model we used supports HSDPA and is theoretically capable of sharing up to 3.6Mbps between the devices connected to it - one of the things we plan to try is testing with more phones, and perhaps a higher bitrate.


The response from visitors to the CES stand was very favourable. Unsurprisingly, many people were unfamiliar with Femtocell technology and assumed that Wi-Fi was being used as the wireless network link. Some people even assumed that the data was being carried over the power leads being used to keep the phones' batteries topped up, and insisted on seeing them working while unplugged! Most people were impressed with the quality of the video, and many people got quite enthusiastic at the potential that Femtocells offer for delivering high-quality video to phones from home networks.

There was another aspect to our demo: Jerry's attendance was subsidised by the DCKTN because it fitted with a UKTI objective to demonstrate an end-to-end video chain using media and hardware developed by UK organisations. The BBC and Ubiquisys are both British companies, and Samsung (who provided the phones) have an R&D operation in the UK, and build many UK-designed technologies into their phones, such as ARM processors and CSR radio modules. The BBC technology programme Click reported on our demo in their 23rd January show. Sadly Jerry doesn't get his 15 seconds of fame, and they don't present the technology from quite the same angle as us - but it's always nice to see our work make it into the international mainstream media...



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