Get ready for body networks

It sounds, at first, like something Marshall McLuhan might have come up with if he had worked in the advertising department at Sun Microsystems. The body is the network. But that’s the notion several companies are working on. Microsoft got noticed in June 2004 by announcing that it had obtained a patent on technology for transmitting data through human skin. But although that announcement drew more North American media attention, European and Japanese companies are already doing what Microsoft so far has only talked about.
Matsushita Electric Works Ltd. has not only developed a system that transmits data through the human body, but sold it to Teraokaseiko Co. Ltd., a maker of measuring instruments that is testing the Matsushita technology in retail systems.
The Matsushita Human Body Communication system uses a wristband that stores information electronically. When a cashier touches a tag on a product, data travels through the cashier’s hand to the wristband. Then when the cashier touches a terminal, data is transferred from the wristband to a point-of-sale system. Matsushita says it could also be used for identification, unlocking doors and so on.
Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. has a system called RedTacton that doesn’t even rely on skin contact. It uses weak electrical fields generated by the human body, so it can transmit data to and from a device that comes within a few inches of the skin, even through clothing. It’s not commercial yet, but NTT hopes to bring it to market in 2006, according to Hidoki Sakamoto, senior manager of R&D strategy there.
In Europe, Munich-based Ident Technology AG has a low-speed system called Skinplex aimed mainly at security applications. You would wear a small electronic device, which would transmit an identification code to a lock when, for instance, you touched a door. Because you actually touch the door, there’s no risk of a wireless transmission being intercepted, as there might be with the ubiquitous wireless car-key fobs.
It’s early to say even how well these body networks will work, never mind how useful they will be. The security applications are interesting, but may be overtaken by biometrics, which is arguably more secure because it depends on something you can’t lose or forget.
Body networks could compete with short-distance wireless technologies like Bluetooth. There are real uses for this, as anyone who has ever fussed with a wired hands-free headset for a cellphone knows. But most of the skin-based communications systems are too slow to transmit a cellphone conversation or music from an iPod to a headset. The exception is NTT’s Red-Tacton — the company claims it can do 10 megabits per second.
But then, why not just use Bluetooth? The main thing holding that technology back seems to be the fact that it just isn’t available in enough mainstream devices yet. Once it is, why would something that works through your skin or your body’s electrical fields be better? Possibly because of interference issues. If everyone has Bluetooth, isn’t it going to be tricky to avoid my headset communicating with your cellphone and vice versa? A body-based system might present fewer problems in crowds.
And some of the possibilities verge on science fiction. Shake hands and electronically exchange business cards, for instance. Centuries from now, people might even come to believe the handshake originated as a way of exchanging information.

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