The Curious History of UWB

Most technologies are born and either survive or die. UWB (Ultra Wide Band) seems determined to do it differently, by constantly reincarnating itself and never quite getting there.  It’s currently at another inflection point in its serendipitous life cycle and it’s not at all obvious whether it will survive this one.


I was recently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan, where I discovered that he had invented an acronym which struck me as remarkably apposite – the Universal Will to Believe. In his case it’s probably nothing to do with wireless (although it could be), but is the mysterious power source in Tralfamodorean spaceships that is harnessed to power the Martian fleet of flying saucers.  Obscure power sources for space travel seem to be a recurring theme in science fiction, as Douglas Adams created something remarkably similar a few decades later, with his Infinite Probability Drive in the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  And recurring themes and reinvention are eerily common in the curious world of UWB.


Track back a few decades to the 1940s and the original idea behind “UWB the radio” is attributed to Hedy Lamarr.  She made her name by running around naked in an early Czech film – a career move that has fortunately not been embraced by any of the current developers of UWB.  Branching out with a mathematician friend during the war, she filed a patent for frequency hopping.  The US government thanked her, but told her she’d be of greater patriotic use if she used her body to gather war funds, so she turned her back on UWB in favour of Holllywood and a later career move of suing software companies for appropriating her image.


The technical limitations of the day meant that her patents didn’t turn into a product, starting what appears to be a never-ending curse on the technology.  It wants to believe in itself, it really does, but whenever it gets close to happening something goes terribly wrong.


The second coming, like Douglas Adam’s Bowl of Petunias, fell out of the sky in the 1990’s, with not much more idea why.  Technology finally began to catch up to the point where it seemed feasible to make a UWB radio and venture capitalists poured money into a range of companies.  Their vision was to exploit the exciting new technology that they claimed could transfer vast amount of data by working under the noise floor.  “Under the noise floor” refers to the very low power of UWB.  The idea is that because it can spread itself over a very wide spectrum of frequencies, the level of radio transmission it needs is less than the background noise.  It’s not very different to the concept peddled by homeopaths, where the more you dilute your medicine the more powerful it becomes.  Maybe if UWB has dispensed with its Universal Will to Believe in itself and rebranded itself as Homeopathic Wireless it may have been more successful.


Or maybe not.  For the curse of UWB was to strike again.  The IEEE formed a group of engineers to develop the specification, known IEEE 802.15.3a. Unfortunately a continued and acrimonious debate about the form the technology should take slowly turned it from a vaguely august body into a pit of fighting dogs.  Like a schizophrenic amoeba with a temper tantrum the group eventually ripped itself apart, forming two groups – the DS-UWB and MB OFDM who ventured forth, each with the intent of proving that theirs was the chosen path.


For those with a spare evening and a penchant for British Comedy the IEEE802.15.3a committee did leave a lasting legacy.  The minutes of their meetings are still available on the IEEE website, and after a few beers they read remarkably well if you try them out loud using Monty Python voices.  They could easily form the basis of a remake of the sandal and the gourd incident from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.


Having acrimoniously split and failed to come up with any meaningful divorce settlement, the two fought like mad dogs until the DS-UWB variant eventually committed hari-kari.  Flushed at its survival the emergent MBOA-UWB camp did the schizophrenic amoeba trick again, splitting into variants aligned with Bluetooth High Speed and Wireless USB.


Technically we should probably call Wireless USB “Wireless USA”, as in its rush to market it chose to operate in a band of frequencies that were illegal anywhere else in the world.  The Bluetooth variant took the global approach and started again with a frequency band that would be useable anywhere, but that meant returning to the drawing board for a slow redesign, all the while harried by the bitter terrible toddlers of the failed DS-UWB camp, who never quite managed to get the chips off their shoulders at having lost out.


But progress was made.  Then, just when it looked as if the good fairy would confirm its Universal Will to Believe, with companies demonstrating working prototypes, the curse of UWB struck again.  At the end of last year the economy plunged and the VC funded companies developing the chips started to fold.  Today they’re disappearing at an almost weekly rate and it’s difficult to see how UWB will survive.


Even Bluetooth – UWB’s potential fairy Godmother has deserted it, selecting 802.11 as its high speed option in its recent Version 3.0 release, although they may yet find their own witch with a poisoned apple in the guise of the Wi-Fi Alliance.  And as the UWB phoenix returns to ashes in its wireless fireplace once again, it’s only to discover the presence of two new ugly sisters in the form of TransferJet and Wireless HD.


Will UWB get to go to the ball?  Will a host of unemployed UWB engineers start running naked thought the San Diego woods in the hope of a Hollywood carer?  Will UWB get to power a new fleet of Martian spaceships?  Will the ugly sisters win the Bluetooth prince?  Or will UWB reincarnate itself with a new third meaning for its acronym – “Ultimately, Why Bother?”


(Having written this, I’ve just had a chance to play with what I’d consider to be the first real UWB device from a company called Leyio.  Have a look – if it might just be UWB’s prince on a white charger.  For a real live demo, along with one of the most amusing accounts you’ll ever come across of how UWB works, take a look at the excellent Dialogue Box’s “Whatever happened to UWB?”.)