60GHz tech promises wireless docking, USB, HDMI

The WiGig Alliance has begun releasing specifications to use 60GHz wireless technology to link tablets to monitors and even replace links deep within a PC chassis.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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WiGig Alliance logo

Every now and again, the rules for how to build a personal computer change. One of those moments may arrive next year with a high-speed wireless technology that could let people link tablets with big-screen TVs or dock laptops when arriving in the office.

The technology, which uses the 60GHz band of radio spectrum and is designed to transfer as much as 7 gigabits of data per second, matches what many wired connections provide, either inside a computer chassis or through the profusion of ports that perforate laptop sides. A group called the WiGig Alliance is developing it, and the group announced today new specifications that could help replace the current tangle of cables.

"I fully expect to see the product ramp to start midyear next year," said Mark Grodzinsky, chairman of the WiGig Alliance's marketing group. "In 2013 you end up with an explosion of products."

The basic data-transfer rules for the 60GHz technology, developed in concert with the IEEE's 802.11ad standard, were published in May. Today, the WiGig Alliance tweaked that with version 1.1, but more importantly announced three higher-level specs that use that foundation:

• The WiGig Bus Extension (WBE), which can enable a wireless version of the PCI Express (PCIe) slots used to connect everything from video cards to hard drives. WBE is now a published specification available to members of the consortium.

• The Wireless Serial Extension (WSE) will provide high-speed serial communications link, enabling a wireless version of the newer USB 3.0 technology. This spec will be published in the second half of 2011.

• The Wireless Display Extension (WDE) governs how external monitors or TVs can be connected with wireless versions of HDMI and DisplayPort connectors. WiGig had been working with VESA, which develops DisplayPort, but now joined HDMI's group, too. WDE also will be published in the second half of 2011.

As an added bonus, the technology also is an extension of traditional Wi-Fi networking, including elements such as Wi-Fi Direct for device-to-device connections. That Wi-Fi ability is handy, but not so paradigm-shiftingly different as blowing apart a PC chassis--especially given that next year also likely will bring the debut of longer-range 802.11ac wireless with a data transfer rate of 1Gbps.

Today's Wi-Fi technology uses 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio spectrum; the 60GHz band permits faster data transfer but is limited to shorter range. The 60GHz band, like the other two, is unlicensed. That means device makers don't need to take out a government license for their devices the way, say, Verizon must to support phones using 4G LTE newtorks.

The WiGig Alliance envisions a wide range of uses for its 7-gigabit-per-second 60GHz wireless communication technology.
The WiGig Alliance envisions a wide range of uses for its 7-gigabit-per-second 60GHz wireless communication technology. WiGig Alliance

What'll it look like?
The 60GHz technology is different from its predecessors. While 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks bathe a room in radio signals, but 60GHz is directional, Grodzinsky said.

A collection of 32 antennas is used to pick the best direct path from, say, a wireless access point to a laptop. It won't matter how the laptop is oriented, though, since the technology can figure out the best path, including reflections off walls and ceilings, he said.

Just don't expect a connection on the other side of the house.

"It's definitely an in-room technology," Grodzinsky said. "This is not how you'll get video distributed throughout your home. You've got a sea of Wi-Fi in your home, then you have islands of 60ghz multigigabit connectivity."

With the higher-level standards from the alliance, a number of wireless possibilities emerge. Here are some scenarios:

• You take your tablet into the living room. It links with a big-screen TV so you can look at your photos, browser the Web on a bigger screen, or play games with the tablet as a controller. It could even use an external graphics chip in a docking station to supply richer graphics.

• You bring your laptop into a conference room at work. It links up with a wireless keyboard, mouse, and projector so you can give a demonstration.

• You set down your work laptop in your home office. It connects with an external monitor for a bigger screen, an external drive to back up your data, and a wireless keyboard and mouse for more convenient controls.

• You get home from a trip and transfer photos from your camera to your computer without having to fiddle with memory cards or rubber-covered USB ports.

• You sync movies, pictures, videos, TV shows, apps and music on your phone, tablet, and computer when you walk into a room--quickly and without a proprietary connector cable that costs $19 to replace.

Grodzinsky believes the technology will first arrive in laptops and docking stations.

Big-name allies
The alliance has attracted big names in the tech industry. The high-level members are Intel, AMD, Samsung, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Marvel, Panasonic, Cisco, Microsoft; Dell, Toshiba, MediaTek, Nokia, and start-up Wilocity. New lower-level members are in the testing industry, an indication that the technology is moving closer toward real-world use.

Having big names on board is helpful, especially when it comes to broadcasting the assurance that a particular new technology isn't just a flash in the pan, but it doesn't guarantee success. There's real work afoot, though, too.

Supporting all three will require "tri-band" wireless chipsets. Qualcomm and Wilocity announced a tri-band chipset, the AR9004TB, in May, and Panasonic this month announced it has developed 60GHz technology.

When companies try to bring new technology to market, they often plaster product boxes with certification logos--an effort to promote the feature, educate the market that it exists, and offer assurances that it works as advertised. Expect more such logos for the 60GHz 802.11ad technology.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies that Wi-Fi gear works well with together with other devices on a wireless network, will assure compliance with the low-level 60GHz communication protocol, Grodzinsky said. The WiGig Alliance, meanwhile, will certify compliance with the higher-level WBE, WSE, and WDE standards.

Bumps in the road?
So that's the vision. The reality might not be so smooth. In particular, input-output technologies are difficult to promote because they suffer acutely from chicken-and-egg difficulties. There's no point in the extra expense of adding support to computers or routers until there are devices that can take advantage of them, but there's no point in building those devices until they have something to connect to.

Wireless USB, which aimed to accomplish a narrower subset of what the WiGig Alliance expects for its 60GHz technology, is a good cautionary tale. Many companies worked on Wireless USB half a decade ago. Though a few Wireless USB devices arrived, the technology proved to be a dud.

Grodzinsky doesn't see a repeat, though.

Wireless USB "ran into the perfect storm--regulatory issues, performance issues, and a spec battle. The things you don't want to have happen in a new technology happened there," he said. Different international regulations meant that companies couldn't make Wireless USB products they could sell globally, and the USB Implementors' Forum pitted Wireless USB with a rival approach from a group called the UWB Forum.

"There were two groups fighting over a nonexistent pie," he said. In contrast, "The WiGig Alliance did a good job rallying its players behind its banner," submitting its technology to Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers and working with the Wi-Fi Alliance, DisplayPort, and HDMI groups.

Another challenge will be matching the reliability of cables. They can be messy and inconvenient, even when you haven't misplaced them, but they're a very economical, well-understood way to get data from point A to point B.

And cables are fast. The Thunderbolt connector on new Macs--an interface developed by Intel that formerly was called Light Peak--enables two bidirectional 10Gbps connections. That's well above USB 3's speeds, and it could get faster if Intel delivers on the original vision of fiber-optic connections.

But don't count 60GHz out. It's being developed by authoritative players, including the IEEE with the 802.11ad spec, and it's a member of the powerfully successful Wi-Fi family. Wireless technology is only getting more important.