Dynamic Sharing

New technology enables users to build their own computing networks on the fly

4 September 2009

ftIn today's Web 2.0 world, sharing is paramount. On Facebook and other social networking sites, you can post and check out others’ photos, opinions, and music. And with the ever more popular Twitter, you can send mass messages about everything from the cereal you ate this morning to your politics. But what if you want to share even more—and on the go?

Picture this: You’re just back from vacation with a smartphone full of photos, and you run into a friend at a local coffee shop. You want to show her your photos, but your phone’s screen is just too small to really see anything. Not to worry: There’s a computer monitor in the shop, so you wirelessly connect your phone to it. Just like that, your photos appear on the larger screen.

Wirelessly linking the monitor to your phone is part of the future, according to Intel Corp. And it’s being made possible thanks to dynamic composable computing (DCC), a technology being developed by IEEE Fellow Roy Want and his Intel colleagues in Santa Clara, Calif.

A senior principal engineer at Intel Labs, Want described DCC at the March media event in New York City celebrating IEEE’s 125th anniversary, where IEEE members working on breakthrough technologies discussed their work with the press.

With DCC, you will be able to play the music stored on your laptop on your friend’s stereo system, wirelessly. Or, from your laptop, you’ll be able to put together a polished video of your recent vacation from the clips still in your camcorder and then show it at a friend’s house on his TV—again, wirelessly.

“Basically, DCC allows you to build your own computer system on the fly,” Want says. The technology lets people use their mobile Internet devices (MIDs) such as smartphones and netbook computers to connect wirelessly to nearby monitors, speakers, keyboards, and other components—even USB devices. Intel, which has a prototype, says DCC could be commercially available in about five years.

“DCC was developed to overcome the limitations of MIDs,” Want says. “We wondered if we could wirelessly borrow a larger display, keyboard, or other peripheral from the nearby infrastructure.”

Key to DCC technology is the composition manager, a component that will have to be built into everything or be downloadable as software. Want says DCC will work a bit like Bluetooth discovery, querying its immediate area for computers and devices to connect to. However, unlike Bluetooth, it will actually tell you what types of components are shareable on each computer. Normally, you make a wireless connection first and then discover services on that computer using universal plug and play. The composition manager compresses several of these steps. It scans for devices—similar to the way your computer looks for Wi-Fi—as well as shareable resources.

At one level, the composition manager presents the resources to a user with a join-the-dots metaphor. In other words, you can share a resource simply by drawing a line to the device you wish to share. “At a higher level, you can save a set of these connections as a composition name, and in the future, to save time, just select that name from a pull-down menu,” Want explains. “To keep it simple, default configurations of several common compositions might be preconfigured in a device at the time of purchase.”

Several key factors make DCC appealing, Want notes, especially in an increasingly mobile world. MIDs such as the iPhone have limitations, including small screens. These problems can be solved with DCC. “I’ve always been excited about smartphones’ capabilities,” Want says. “Our technology allows us to make better use of them.”

Advances in processor technology are enabling greater interoperability between mobile devices and desktop computers. Also, high-bandwidth wireless communications have improved. According to Want, the wireless standards being developed for many of today’s MIDs make it easy to create the connections DCC needs to link to different components. In particular, two short-range wireless standards—ultrawideband and IEEE 802.11n—boast data rates of about 500 megabits per second, comparable to those of a wired connection. “For the first time, we can consider connecting the major system components of a computer architecture wirelessly,” Want says.

Intel’s developers face great obstacles. If it’s so easy to connect to surrounding hardware, what’s to stop a stranger from accessing your information? Want says the likely solution will be to have users type in passwords for the components they want to use. This would make the connection just as secure as the one an employee uses to connect to the company server when telecommuting. That approach might be further improved through technologies such as near-field communications, in which a device is brought within 1 centimeter of another to initially make the connection, using physical proximity to enforce the right to connect.

But the number-one challenge, as with most new technology, is adoption. For companies to build their devices with DCC, wireless standards must be developed. “Work on standards for layer-2 discovery is already taking place, and so is work around wireless display,” Want says. Once standards are in place, it will be time to win over consumers. For that, Want goes by the saying, “If you build it, they will come. People will realize that a device that can share is much more valuable than one that can’t.”

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