Mobile magician

5 min read

Nokia’s research chief Bob Iannucci has the secret for the next generation of mobile phones and promises Wibree will change the way we use them. Niall Firth reports

It is almost physically impossible to have the most advanced mobile phone on the market at any one time. As soon as you’ve left the shop and unpacked your pride and joy some handset manufacturer will have unleashed its latest ultra-thin, feature-packed design classic, making your new purchase appear as advanced as My First Phone.

As one of the world’s biggest handset companies, Finland’s Nokia exploits this phenomenon better than most. Its latest mobile wonder, the N95, is a multimedia mini-computer packed with a host of features designed for the business user on the move.

To keep this production line of mobile innovation on the move requires a constant stream of new ideas, so it is perhaps no surprise that research accounts for a huge part of Nokia’s workforce. More than a third of its 60,000 employees are employed in research and development and about 800 of these work at the Nokia Research Centre, which has been the heart of the mobile giant’s R&D activities for the past 20 years.

Despite its name, Nokia Research Centre is a decentralised group of international research centres with three offices in Nokia’s home of Finland, two in the US, one in Germany, one each in Japan and China and another in the UK.

Bob Iannucci, head of the Nokia Research Centre, has a classic IT background in computer science covering years of service at firms such as IBM and is very excited by the possibilities of the mobile industry.

He oversees a wide and varied portfolio of mobile phone-related technology development including radios, injection moulding, materials, user interface technology and software. He is an engaging speaker with a passion for the possibilities of mobile phones and one of the best-placed people in the world to speculate on the direction of the industry.

Nokia’s latest big idea is Wibree, an innovative wireless technology that Iannucci believes will change the way in which we use our mobile phones. At a technical level it is nothing more than an extension of Bluetooth technology as it reuses much of the same hardware. However, according to Iannucci, the technology will enable a new breed of applications to emerge that will work with your mobile phone.

‘Instead of the terminal being the end of the line, as is the case now, it’s going to become the bridge between the internet world and the world of sensors in your environment,’ said Iannucci. ‘Wibree is the technology that makes this last hop feasible.’

Initially the industry was sceptical about Wibree’s ability to break through into territory now split between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but Iannucci is confident. ‘Imagine you have sensors in your car or on your person, that link to your phone and give you the ability to gather instant information about your own health or whether you are about to enter a traffic jam. This is what Wibree can offer.’

This form of coupling mobile phones with sensor-rich environments is not possible with Bluetooth alone, said Iannucci. Compared with Wibree, Bluetooth uses too much power to be able to interact with a number of sensors at once.

‘Wibree will allow us to make sensors a first-class part of the broader wireless network,’ predicted Iannucci. ‘Mobile phones will have Bluetooth and Wibree running alongside each other but you will also have wristwatches, home sensors, toys and automotive accessories that have Wibree-enabled only and which can interact with a mobile phone.’

Nokia is also heavily involved in research regarding cognitive radio, a technology that uses software in both ends of the wireless connection to negotiate the best way of using the available bandwidth, as well as that technology’s natural progression — true, software-defined radio.

One of Iannucci’s big concerns is how technology and design can be used to make the mobile phone more a part of our everyday lives by improving its usability and making the user interface more intuitive. His team is also constantly working on ways to increase the phone’s computing power, he said. Building sensors into the phones, in particular, is a real focus of interest.
‘We see a very broad and ripe area for adding all sorts of things that detect where the phone is in your pocket, whether you’re holding it up or down,’ he said.

Following the brouhaha surrounding the recent launch of Apple’s iPhone, Iannucci also revealed that Nokia is developing its own advanced input technology. ‘We are working on involving accelerometers so you can use gestures as an input method — an idea that significantly predates some of the things you might have seen in competitors’ phones,’ he said.


Wibree technology will enable a new breed of applications to emerge that will work with the mobile phone

In the immediate future, Iannucci believes gestural and tactile interfaces will be the next big thing in mobile phones — technology that makes the phone more intuitive to use.

The next step forward, in his opinion, is speech. ‘Gesture and tactile feedback are really intriguing areas and a companion to the touchscreen idea. However we think that speech-based interfaces will blossom on phones over the next few years as that technology is quite mature now.’

As part of this process to bind the mobile phone ever closer to our everyday life Nokia is also working on a project called SharMe, a collaborative research project with a number of Finnish universities. This ambitious project aims to develop intelligent software that would allow the mobile to automatically record events around the user’s life, including photos, sound and health readings to create a real-time journal of their life and memories requiring minimum conscious input from the user.

Looking even further into the future is Nokia’s recent collaboration with Cambridge University to explore the possibilities afforded by advances in nanotechnology. The move is a step away from Nokia’s traditional focus on applications and towards technology creation, which Iannucci described as a real priority for the company.

‘We are starting to look beyond pure application development,’ he said. ‘With Cambridge we have the very brightest and the best in nanoscience and with Nokia’s expertise in bringing products to market we have found what we believe is a very happy marriage here.’

While the relationship is still in its infancy, Iannucci believes that nanotechnology will have numerous applications in the mobile phone of the future. As well as self-cleaning screens and advanced battery technologies, one of the most exciting of these applications for Nokia is the use of carbon nanotubes to take the hardware complexity out of a mobile phone’s radio subsystems.

The Holy Grail of mobile technology, software-defined radio, would involve simply plugging the phone’s antenna into an analogue to digital converter with software doing the rest of the hard work. However, research has shown that without a software-tuneable, high-performance filter this is physically impossible. Using carbon nanotubes as tuneable resonators is one thing that could solve this problem, according to Iannucci.

‘We are already demonstrating nanotech that allows us to put smart surfaces on devices, making the actual phone’s skin intelligent,’ he said. ‘This would support the idea of touch-based interfaces much more broadly than what we understand today. There is almost no area that is untouched by nanoscience in mobility — it’s so applicable.’

Perhaps inevitably, making mobile phones more environmentally-friendly is a focus of much of Nokia’s ongoing research, from bio-degradable plastics through to phone-chargers that consume far less power when idle.

However, Iannucci believes the mobile phone of the future will consist of much more than a single handset and that the definition of a mobile device itself will change completely.
‘The mobile phone will give way to multipart devices,’ he predicted. ‘For example — a business card in your pocket that is a screen connected to something in your wallet that contains your digital identity.

‘The radio and earpiece may be nothing more than bone-conduction technology, far smaller than existing earpieces. Mobile technology as a whole will become more invisible and integrated into everyday life so you will just use it rather than managing it, buying it or even carrying it.’