opinion


Christmas cheer from Alcatel-Lucent and Bell Labs

The glory days of basic science research at Bell Labs may be over, but there was a buzz in the air at the Bell Labs Innovation Day taking place at Alcatel-Lucent’s plush Paris HQ just off the Champs-Elysees earlier this month.

Given Alcatel Lucent’s current difficult circumstances CEO Ben Verwaayen is keen to position the vendor as a technology innovator rather than ailing giant and was there in person to introduce and talk up the research activities of its Bell Labs group.

We didn’t escape current gloom completely as press questions still centred on Alcatel-Lucent’s strategic plans; eliciting Verwaayen’s pointed comment that the vendor was not planning to abandon the mobile sector. However, the rest of the Innovation Day was devoted as intended to the heady topic of the future.
If Alcatel-Lucent’s plan was to dazzle with the sheer quantity of research taking place at Bell Labs then it went some way towards achieving that as scores of journalist, analysts and customers were led through more than 30 project demos and presentations ranging from encrypted traffic identification through to 3D IPTV.

Alcatel-Lucent received some flak for its decision earlier this year to pull out of basic science research at Bell Labs and to focus on areas it can easily commercialise such as networks, electronics, software and nanotechnology. In truth it’s been a while since Bell Labs had a heavy focus on basic science research but the final break with its glorious past did make for negative PR. However, following last month’s organizational revamp it’s clear that Alcatel-Lucent is looking to make better use of Bell Labs to promote an image of itself as a technology innovator. After all what better way to try to differentiate yourself when Chinese vendors are increasingly snapping at your heels?

Bell Labs president Jeong Kim was circumspect over dinner about singling out individual research projects but Verwaayen had no such scruples, waving a matchbox-sized thermal heat sink unit throughout his presentation in a bid to reinforce the image of Alcatel-Lucent as not just innovative but also environmentally and socially responsible.

It’s easy to be cynical about green marketing spin but in this particular instance there were some interesting projects on display, including the aforementioned thermal sink unit. Destined for mass production by end-2009 it’s a deceptively simple piece of engineering – a three-dimensional air cooling unit which when positioned in telecoms equipment is able to reduce cooling costs by up to 50%.

The potential impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated as according to Alcatel-Lucent global telecoms energy usage is around 552TWh which equates to 63 1GW power plants or Euro48.5 billion – and up to 50% of this power is used for thermal management.

Other projects with an environmental flavour included liquid cooling and energy harvesting solutions, smart metering to manage electricity supply more efficiently, renewable energy-powered cellular base stations, active antenna arrays that reduce the power required for amplifiers in base stations, as well as various multiband and multimode bases station innovations. It was suggested by Verwaayen that the motto “always on” will in a more environmentally-friendly ICT world have to be replaced by “on when we need it”.

On the enterprise side there was a bit of a medical theme with projects such as smart surgery suites and digital stethoscopes highlighted. And perhaps topically for the UK government in the light of the recent problems it’s had with losing sensitive data there was also a laptop security application that allows laptops to be remotely shutdown or destroyed. On the consumer side there were also plenty of projects revolving around personalization, improved service control and home automation.

Some of the more bizarre demos included on-screen interaction with avatars and 3D IPTV, although thankfully the latter wasn’t teamed up with the high definition appendectomy we were treated to in one of the medical presentations.

Feel-good projects and futuristic lifestyle demos apart there were also some good solid networking technology research projects on display including using MIMO to overcome inter-cell interference, crosstalk cancellation in the local loop, 100 Gigbit Ethernet and the Photonic Integrated Circuit.
The research on the Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC) may have the most lasting impact. With the first prototype PIC due out in 2009 and commercialisation anticipated in 2010 the technology has the potential to deliver 100Gb/s bandwidth. According to Alcatel-Lucent the PIC is the optical equivalent of the electronic integrated circuit and is expected to halve power consumption and reduce costs even further.

I have to add that my two personal favorites were a video microprojector and a silent speech project. The miniature video microprojector, appropriately enough for the laboratory that invented the laser, is based on laser projection and will be small enough to be located in a mobile handset or camera. It’s due to be commercialised in 2010 but I imagine the way this might end up being used by teenagers will be radically different to the potential PowerPoint applications that my fellow analysts were getting excited about.

Finally the ‘talking beyond hearing’ project involves using an ultrasound microphone and ultrasonic impulses to detect silent words formed without actually activating your vocal chords. This seemed to me most in keeping with the old Bell Labs spirit of wild invention. Clearly it will be of use to those with impaired speech but the circumstances where high levels of background noise or social convention might require you to talk silently are more limited. But who cares, the technical feat involved in identifying vowel sounds was staggering enough and what better invention than a speechless mobile phone!


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