Steve Perlman is ready to give you a personal cell phone signal that follows you from place to place, a signal that’s about 1,000 times faster than what you have today because you needn’t share it with anyone else.
Perlman — the iconic Silicon Valley inventor best known for selling his web TV company to Microsoft for half a billion dollars — started work on this new-age cellular technology a decade ago, and on Wednesday morning, he’ll give the first public demonstration at Columbia University in New York, his alma mater. Previously known as DIDO, the technology is now called pCell — short for “personal cell” — and judging from the demo Perlman gave us at his lab in San Francisco last week, it works as advertised, streaming video and other data to phones with a speed and a smoothness you’re unlikely to achieve over current cell networks.
“It’s a complete rewrite of the wireless rulebook,” says Perlman, who also helped Apple create QuickTime, the technology that ought video to the Macintosh. “Since the invention of wireless, people have moved around the coverage area. Now, the coverage area follows you.”
Working under the aegis of a new company called Artemis Research — a mythological reference meant to paint pCell as a “moon shot” — Perlman is intent on pushing his new technology into major American cities and beyond. He says the first prototype network could launch as soon as the four quarter of this year. Some believe the technology could very well remake the wireless industry, but as with any moon shot, there are obstacles aplenty.
The project would involve installing entirely new wireless antennas atop buildings and towers across the country, as well as slipping new cards into our phones. Perlman says he’s already in discussions with some of the world’s largest wireless carriers and handset designers about the technology, but if history is a guide, the Verizons and the AT&Ts — who are still upgrading their networks to the relatively new LTE wireless technology — will be slow to make the move, if they make it at all.
“In business, there is money in scarcity,” says Richard Doherty, director of a technology consulting firm called Envisioneering, who has closely followed Perlman’s project. “The wireless business models of today are based on scarcity. Opening up the floodgates for any service, for any carrier, has tremendous implications. In our experiences working with carriers…they like to have everything defined on their terms, to have eakthroughs arrive when they want them to.”
One thing’s for sure: the idea is a complete departure from the current way of doing things, the sort of invention Perlman is known for. His San Francisco lab is called Rearden — a nod to Hank Rearden, the fictional magnate in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged who invents an alloy that’s stronger than steel — and this tiny tech incubator is always looking for ways of overturning the status quo. It has already given rise to OnLive, a service that lets you streams game and other software over the internet rather than installing it on local devices, and Mova, which helped transform movie and game effects by providing a means of digitally capturing facial expressions, and now, it hopes to turn the wireless industry on its head.
With today’s networks, each antenna — perched atop a building or tower — creates a massive “cell” of wireless signal. This is essentially an enormous cone of radio waves that spans several city blocks, and it’s shared by all phones in the area. But Perlman’s invention discards the arrangement, giving each phone its own tiny cell, a bubble of signal that goes wherever the phone goes. This “personal cell” provides just as much network bandwidth as today’s cells, Perlman says, but you needn’t share the bandwidth with anyone else. The result is a significantly faster signal.