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Students Explore Potential of Wireless Technology - 2002-10-16

Imagine what you might do with a technology that lets you send and receive any kind of digital electronic information, whether text or sound or video - anywhere, at anytime, and in a fraction of a second, without wires or cables, using a device as small as the palm of your hand. And imagine, too, that this device knows where you are and can tell you things about your immediate environment. That is what the University of Georgia is asking its students to imagine. Researchers at the school in Athens, Georgia, believe wireless technology is the wave of the future. But they say no one has yet tapped its full potential. The school is offering students a chance to discover for themselves what wireless technology can do.

Scott Shamp is the director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute, a think tank that experiments with emerging technology. He believes wireless technology the kind some people already use to access the internet without physically plugging into anything can change our relationship with information. "People have always talked about information as though it were a destination," he said. "You know you go to a book, you go to the library, an expert, the Internet. What we want to do is explore what information might be like if it were a companion something that traveled with you, that enriched your life and your experiences on a day-to-day basis."

So Mr. Shamp is creating an area in which anyone with a portable computer, a hand-held personal digital assistant, or even a highly advanced cell phone, will be able to access a wireless network for free. All they'll need is a special card giving their device the ability to transmit wireless frequencies, using a technology called wireless fidelity or "wi-fi."

Mr. Shamp says the wireless zone will cover 24 blocks of downtown Athens, encompassing the campus as well as bars, restaurants, shops, even a couple of government buildings. "We're going to be creating a wireless 'cloud' over this entire area," said Scott Shamp. "So that anybody who comes into this space with the right type of device a wi-fi enabled device is going to be able to get information about what's going on in Athens at this point in time. Going to be able to find out about the entertainment options, the restaurants tap into the happening."

To make that possible, undergraduates are building the wireless network.

In a small computer laboratory on campus, senior Karim Delgado is teaching four classmates how to build the 50 cm-tall antennae that will be placed on 10 lightpoles throughout the area. The small antennae will relay information from people's wireless devices to a large antenna on top of the 9-story New Media Institute building. The total cost: only $85,000. And since the zone is relatively small, it can provide high bandwidth - transmitting up to 11 megabits of data per second, a much faster rate than some mobile phone companies offer their wireless internet customers.

Scott Shamp is assigning students with inclinations more creative than technical the task of developing the content people will actually be able to access it within the wireless zone. "I'm a guy who was raised on 3 television stations when I grew up," he said. "I'm not going to come up with a compelling application for what'll drive people to wireless. These students who were weaned on the internet are the ones who understand these new relationships with information. And they're going to be the ones that are going to come up with the next cool thing that you can do that is going to make it so that people have to have wireless."

Seniors who are pursuing a special certificate of achievement from the New Media Institute just found out that their senior project is to develop content for the wireless zone. And although the zone won't be fully up and running until December, the students are already working on ideas. For example, Abigail Smith wants to add location-based technology to help students find their friends. "So anyone who is logged into the downtown network, you would put their name on your buddy list and with the location-based technology you might be able to see where downtown they are," she said. "You can say hey so-and-so's having lunch over at Rocky's. Let's go meet up, grab a slice of pizza, catch up, see what they've been up to lately."

Students have also suggested making menus available online and letting people place orders over their wireless devices so that by the time they get to the restaurant, the food's ready. 22-year-old Daniel Lundy wants to create a paintball game in which players hunting each other down with dye markers could turn their wireless signals on and off to evade their opponents. "Theoretically, you would want virtual reality glasses and a gun and you could like run around and like play paintball but in a virtual setting in downtown Athens," said Daniel Lundy.

These ideas could become reality- eventually. But the first things available to wireless users will be a bit simpler. Athens has a large music scene the city is home to big-name rock bands like R.E.M. and the B-52's, among others. And students are building a database that will show who's performing where and when and offer reviews. Scott Shamp says the only rules he's giving his students are that the content has to be free and provide people with incentives to use wireless technology. He says the internet was created in an academic environment with similar rules. "They didn't think about how to make a profit off it," he said. "All they thought about was how to do things better with information. And they came up with an infrastructure built on this new way of thinking about information. That was really the start of the WorldWide Web."

But businesses in Athens are already thinking about how to profit from the wireless technology trend. Creighton Cutts is owner of a novelty shop called Frontier that sells things like antiques, soaps, and candles. His store doesn't have a website he never saw a reason for it. But he does want to create content for the university's planned wireless network. "I could immediately see somebody walking downtown, accessing information," he said. "They get within 50 yards [meters] of my store. I could have a coupon pop up on their screen for 10 [percent] off [the retail price], if they come in and show me the advertisement on their cell phone."

People will be discouraged from using credit cards to buy things over their wireless devices. Scott Shamp says the network will NOT be secure. In fact, he tells students to use it only for things they would do in the middle of a park with their mothers watching. The University of Georgia professor thinks of the new wireless zone as a sandbox, allowing his students to play and discover what kinds of castles they can build. He says they just might come up with a brilliant idea that could change the way people live.