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Magnets attracting wireless attention

The humble star of many a science project is gaining the attention of home-electronics firms and government agencies as an alternative to Bluetooth and other wireless techniques.

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Magnets are beginning to gain the attention of home-electronics manufacturers and government agencies as an alternative to Bluetooth and other short-range wireless techniques.

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What's new:
Manufacturers and government agencies are exploring the use of magnetic waves to transfer data across short distances.

Bottom line: If it proves feasible, "magnetic induction" could supplant current wireless technologies such as Bluetooth.

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This week, Troy, Mich.-based manufacturer Fonegear began selling cordless cell phone headsets that use the properties of a magnetic field. The headsets, which cost between $60 and $80 each, are the first wave of mass-market electronic devices that use a new generation of magnet-powered wireless technology. The next to debut will likely be routers that let home stereos and televisions wirelessly connect with a personal computer to play songs or movies, sources said.

The Department of Defense is also using a magnetic approach with rifle-mounted video cameras that can wirelessly beam images to a helmet-worn monitor. Using the gear, next-generation warriors won't have to expose themselves to enemy fire during battle by poking their heads out of a foxhole or around a corner.

At the heart of the new interest in what's known as "magnetic induction" is Aura, or so claims the nine-year-old chipmaker, founded by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates. The company has spurred a fresh look from manufacturers because it's managed to take an approach that used to require four-foot-wide wire coils and other cumbersome gear, and shrink it onto a single chip, Aura Vice President Dan Cui said.

Developed in the late 1950s, magnetic induction never really caught on commercially because of the equipment size. It's now sporadically used by museums, for self-guided tour devices that can sense when a user has entered a given gallery.

Aura's goal is to make magnetic induction a major new option for manufacturers looking to snip wires from electronic devices, Cui said. Among the most popular methods now is Bluetooth, a standard that creates a powerful but short-range wireless connection between devices. Bluetooth is supported by giants like Microsoft and cell phone maker Nokia, even though the technology, developed by Ericsson, is prone to interference and is a renowned power drain.

Cui said magnetic induction has begun making a dent, albeit a small one, in the spread of Bluetooth. He said Fonegear evaluated Bluetooth and other wireless techniques before choosing Aura's chips.

Fonegear President Ken Eisenbraun said in a statement that "Through this new design, we expect to shake up the industry and show people what a high-quality wireless headset experience is all about."

Aside from Fonegear and the Department of Defense, NASA plans to use Aura's chips on future space suits, so a wearer's vital statistics can be monitored from afar.

An Ericsson representative had no immediate comment on the implications for Bluetooth. A member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which publishes the Bluetooth standard, was unavailable for comment Friday.

Magnetic induction differs from Bluetooth and just about every other wireless technique now available, most of which use what's known as radio frequency, or RF, signals--bursts of electrical energy that waft out like ripples in a pond until they reach an antenna.

Magnetic fields also create waves, but the waves form a kind of bubble, which stops growing after four feet, making them more secure than waves wafting endlessly in every direction, Cui said.

The magnetic approach also consumes very little power when compared with notorious battery-draining RF techniques like Bluetooth. According to a description on the Aura Web site, Fonegear's headset can keep going for up to three months on a single AA battery, as opposed to only a number of hours for equipment outfitted with Bluetooth.

There's also the matter of interference. RF signals are assigned areas of spectrum in which to operate, creating crowded conditions where signals can bounce up against each other, causing interference. But magnetic fields operate in an area of spectrum that's for now used very rarely, and only for industrial, scientific or medical use.

"Interference is not an issue," Cui said.

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