Wi-Fi's new job: Doing the dishes?

Once a one-trick pony, the wireless networking technology is now popping up in a variety of places, from the church to homes and offices.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
SEATTLE--Wi-Fi, it seems, is finally getting something else to do other than move files from place to place.

Peninsula Covenant Church parishioners in Redwood City, Calif., bring their Bibles, and their Palms, to Sunday Mass. A Wi-Fi access point--on the church's rooftop cross--beams them the text of a Sunday sermon and an accompanying multimedia presentation.

And in Houston, Wi-Fi is being used to create wireless billboards to replace the melange of scribbled notes on kitchen refrigerators that usually serve as a family bulletin board.

Since it burst upon the computing scene two years ago, wireless networking based on Wi-Fi--also known as 802.11b--has been a one-trick pony. Wi-Fi networks send data from one device to another, whether it's a digital television signal being beamed to an upstairs bedroom or a Web-surfing session a floor away from the digital subscriber line jack.

But the technology has done little else--a phenomenon that attendants at this week's 802.11 West conference here say needs to change soon to meet the soaring expectations of analysts.

Analysts at Instat/MDR believe that by 2005, there will be more than 55 million of these wireless networks in homes and offices.

"Some people told us they'd like to see it load and unload the dishwasher, but that's still a ways off," said Tony Barra, president of the nonprofit Internet Home Alliance (IHA).

Turning off the lights
IHA has been operating at least four pilot projects using Wi-Fi. In one trial under way in Michigan, called "OnStar@Home," wireless networking plays an integral role. The four-month project, which will let a car pulling into the driveway automatically arm or disarm a home's security system, turn on or off lights in the home, or adjust the home's thermostat. IHA, General Motors, security firm ADT, Panasonic and a handful of other companies are participating.

In 150 Houston homes, the refrigerator billboard is going wireless. Wi-Fi-powered devices similar to Web tablets have replaced the scribbled notes stuck under refrigerator magnets holding reminders about late soccer practices. Barra said these systems can use Wi-Fi to shuttle a short message to children's cell phones if their ride home is going to be late or automatically reconfigure an entire schedule based on a parent's sudden late meeting at work.

Such systems can even take into account the growing number of high schools that aren't letting students use cell phones for voice calls in school. "For kids, during school hours, we can set it up to vibrate for notifications; or notifications can be forwarded by short text messages," Barra said.

Another IHA pilot project uses Wi-Fi to help cook a meal. The idea, Barra said, is to couple wireless networking with new devices from the likes of Whirlpool, which can act as both a refrigerator and an oven. A few clicks from another device operated remotely, and you've got dinner.

Wi-Fi is also part of a pilot project trying to keep energy companies from suffering the same woes as California's companies did during the energy crisis of two years ago. These companies found themselves spending billions of dollars to buy electricity on the spot market when there were peak usage times. What they needed was a way to take control of the situation inside homes by adjusting thermostats automatically to avoid brownouts.

Barra said the pilot project is testing a way to use wireless thermostats so energy companies can automatically reduce someone's thermostat or dim their lights when energy became scarce.

That was a little too eerie for some participants, he said. "Some of it wasn't too warmly received," Barra said. "People didn't like the energy companies fiddling with their thermostats."

Where Is Wi-Fi?
The IHA is by far the busiest of those looking for something else for Wi-Fi to do. But there are a handful of private companies looking as well.

IBM is giving Wi-Fi networks the same mobility they are supposed to provide users. Usually, the access points, which contain the radios necessary to create a wireless network, stay in one place.

But IBM and Boeing have helped create "droppable access points" for police and emergency officials. In a recent trial, according to IBM manager Suzanne Rutkowski, emergency officials put Wi-Fi access points around the Pentagon, creating an on-the-go network.

Air Canada has also been using Wi-Fi networks to find people online about to miss their flights, then process their tickets and give them seat assignments on the fly, she said Tuesday. "We need to have these new applications," she said.

WhereNet, based in Santa Clara, Calif., uses Wi-Fi networks to track merchandise in a warehouse and can even locate items geographically.

Laptop maker Toshiba has also developed a way for someone on a Wi-Fi network to find a nearby printer and print his or her document, even if it's in a coffee shop down the street.

Some of these projects are met with shrugs or wry smiles, like that from Peter Claasen, vice president of business development for California-based Nomadix, a Wi-Fi software maker.

"You've got to give these things a try," he said.