Other Nifty Gadgets

There are all manners of ways that Wi-Fi can be used to make your life more fun and profitable. In the following sections, I'll show you a few of them.

Home Entertainment

I think that some time soon all home entertainment?stereos and televisions?will be equipped with Wi-Fi from the factory. We will be able to download music and movies using our computers and zap it across our Wi-Fi networks to be played.

Of course, the home entertainment devices will also be able to download content directly via Wi-Fi through the home network's router and the high-bandwidth Internet connection.

You will also be able to use your computer to control a variety of aspects of configuring your home entertainment devices, for example, a la TIVO, without having to worry about connecting wires or the physical placement of your home entertainment assets.

In the here and now, as opposed to sometime soon, you can't buy home entertainment devices equipped in this way. What you can buy is a Wi-Fi multimedia receiver that can be plugged into your stereo or television. This device allows you to stream audio or video over the Internet and play it across your Wi-Fi network on your stereo or television home entertainment systems.

For example, SMC Network's EZ-Stream Universal, shown in Figure 7.3, plugs into any home entertainment center using standard audio or video cabling to input into the home entertainment device.

Figure 7.3. SMC Network's EZ-Stream Universal uses Wi-Fi to stream audio and video to home entertainment systems.

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When the EZ-Stream is connected to a home entertainment device, it's easy to play audio or video streamed from the Web (or stored on your computer). You can even pop a DVD into a drive on your computer and play it on a home entertainment device connected to an EZ-Stream. (Don't blame me if other users on your Wi-Fi network start complaining about network degradation while you are watching your movie!)

Wi-Fi in the Kitchen

You may have seem some notices in the media about wired refrigerators, the so-called "Internet fridges" available in limited quantities from a number of vendors. You may even have seen television commercials for really smart fridges that clean up after themselves and introduce compatible singles (no, not really!).

However, in reality the "wired" features of these fridges don't currently offer many practical benefits. You can surf the Internet from a panel built onto the outside of the refrigerator door provided the unit is hardwired into a home network with an Internet connection, but otherwise these units don't seem to be a great deal of practical help in life.

The fact of the matter is that the digitally enabled kitchen is still in the trial and prototype stage. Undoubtedly, as these development efforts progress, Wi-Fi will come to be the most important way to connect kitchen components.

Currently, a number of major companies including General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Panasonic are conducting early-stage trial and demonstration projects that involve digitally-enabled kitchens. (Some of these projects also extend to other portions of the home.) In addition, the Internet Home Alliance (IHA), an organization funded by its member companies including the companies I just mentioned, sponsors a wide variety of feasibility studies and standards initiatives around creating digitally intelligent homes. (You can find out more about the IHA and its mission at www.internethomealliance.com.)

For the time being, I can just speculate about how Wi-Fi will be used in the kitchen.

It seems clear that if every device were equipped with Wi-Fi, you could monitor your kitchen from anywhere in the home (or away from the home, for that matter). You could bring up a picture showing all available kitchen devices (for example, stoves, bread makers, and so on). The graphic would display what the device was doing, and allow you to adjust the settings. For example, you could turn down the heat on a stove burner if it looked like your soup was coming to a boil.

There's a pretty big opportunity with refrigerators to use Wi-Fi in a genuinely useful way. A fridge equipped with a Wi-Fi connection could also be provided with a bar code reader and some form of visual object recognition. You could maintain weekly shopping lists. The bar code reader and object recognition software could be used to check items in and out. When the fridge got low on food, it could simply order replacements over the Internet using its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity.

Generally, having wireless devices in your kitchen interoperating with your home network is the idea behind the standards being developed by the IHA. Sooner than you think not only your kitchen, but also your whole house, will be "unwired" to work more efficiently together, very likely using Wi-Fi for connectivity.

Voice Badges and More

"Enterprise! Come in, Enterprise!"

"Beam me up, Scottie."

I'm sure you remember the badges used for voice communication in Star Trek: The Next Generation and sequels. Well, with Wi-Fi, voice badges are no longer science fiction, they are in fact in use right here and now.

Vocera Communications makes a communications system that operates using a Wi-Fi network. The Vocera system is intended for use in a situation like a hospital, large retail operations, or a corporate campus. Vocera's early customers have primarily been hospitals, which can put to good use some of the special features of the system, like the need to locate a particular kind of specialist right away. But the badges are also being used in large retail operations where they can help customers find salespeople, and salespeople find information they need about inventory quickly.

Each user wears a small badge (this is the Star Trek part) like that shown in Figure 7.4.

Figure 7.4. The Vocera voice badge is worn by its user.


This badge weighs less than two ounces and can be clipped to a shirt or coat or worn on a lanyard cord around your neck.

People within a campus such as a hospital use the Vocera voice badge to communicate with one another much as they would using a phone equipped with an external microphone.

However, the Vocera voice badge can do a great deal more than simple voice communications. Each badge is connected via Wi-Fi to a central Vocera server on the network. Sophisticated voice recognition software (provided by Nuance Corporation) can automatically recognize emergency calls and route them correctly. The server can also access directories to properly direct calls without human intervention. For example, suppose a doctor needs an anesthesiologist right away. Instead of having to manually identify and locate the anesthesiologist on call, the Vocera system can automatically connect the doctor to the specialist needed.

If you work as part of a team, you may be using Wi-Fi voice badges to interact with your team members?sooner than you think.