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Cisco, MIT look from lab to market

New communications technology could spawn futuristic products. Could your purse tell you to bring an umbrella? Photos: Networks of tomorrow

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Cisco Systems is teaming up with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop new communications technology that the company hopes to ultimately turn into products.

Cisco is sponsoring the MIT Media Lab's Digital Life Consortium, which will give the networking giant the ability to view the lab's projects and influence the direction of the work, Charles Giancarlo, chief technology officer at Cisco, said Wednesday. The company has been working with MIT on other projects since 2000.

As part of the expanded relationship, Cisco will gain exclusive rights to certain applications that emerge from the MIT research. Exactly which applications those are is still being discussed.

Cisco expects some of the research will help it develop actual products. The company spent $3.3 billion in research and development in fiscal year 2004. Most of that money was used for in-house product development, Giancarlo said. But, he added, the company is also committed to supporting academic research and collaborating with scientists to develop next-generation technologies before they are ready for commercialization.

"The research community is really good at exploring experimental technologies," he said. "At Cisco, we're more about product development."

Cisco has similar investments with other universities including the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University. The company also provides equipment for research efforts such as the National Lambda Rail fiber network, which is being built for exclusive use by the research community.

Some of the work being done in MIT's Digital Life Consortium addresses mesh networks, in which different devices on a network can communicate directly with one other, bypassing a central communications point. For example, a mesh network design could allow mobile phone users to make calls without routing them through a central tower, said Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the MIT Media Lab.

Mesh Networks can be used in rural areas or in developing countries as an alternative to a network built by a carrier, Negroponte said. "It's a way of building infrastructure very cheaply."

Also on Wednesday, MIT Media Lab researchers demonstrated the so-called smart-devices project, which illustrates the potential of mesh networking in an office setting. In the corner of a demonstration room researchers set up a vertical metal framework that many different computing devices could plug into.

The devices, which are modified handheld computers based on a relatively inexpensive XScale processor, can handle computing tasks such as videoconferencing or rendering graphics by combining their computing power and sharing information of a wireless network.

Researchers in the MIT Media Lab also are working on new wireless technologies that can be used to network devices within a home or office. One prototype developed by graduate students even networks clothing.

Gauri Nanda, a second-year MIT graduate student, helped design special electronic sensors that can be sewn into fabric such as clothing, purses or even curtains. Using wireless technology, these sensors can be networked together so that they can share information. For example, Nanda described how a sensor attached to a curtain could detect the moisture in the air outside. If the sensor indicated a high chance of rain, it could send a message to a sensor sewn into a purse that would alert someone carrying the purse that she should bring an umbrella with her.

So far, Cisco has no plans to enter the networked apparel market, Giancarlo said.

"Can you imagine the bugs in something like that?" he joked.

But Giancarlo said he could see possible applications for meshed networking in the future.

He also emphasized that he expects Cisco to apply a lot of the new technology developed in the MIT Media Lab to much of its product line, and not exclusively to its home-networking division.

"We're not just looking at digital home applications," Giancarlo said. "All this technology is networking and communications, and that affects all parts of our business."

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