What Is Broadband on This Particular Day?

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Even though the word "broadband" seems to have equated itself with fast Internet service in both industrial and mainstream minds, there remains a handful of fanatics — in the groove days of the Silicon Valley wealth phenomenon, they'd be called "evangelists" — who believe it to be much, much more.

You know these people. I know these people. They usually have some link to the engineering and scientific community, where most of the stuff that eventually becomes a salable service gets started. They mean no harm — they just tend to hear things first.

They have to. They're the people that have to sort out the "hows" of broadband (and the dishwasher, and the CD player, and anything else that breaks, usually).

It all begins when someone, innocently enough, uses the word "broadband" to mean fast Internet service. With rolling eyes and a small sigh, the fanatics among us calmly point out that broadband is way more than high-speed Internet service.

As though they'd just wearily reset the "play" button in their heads (again), they describe "broadband" as the ability to deliver phone calls, television and high-speed Internet service to as many devices as people have in their homes.

They close the discussion with the part about how cable is the only mechanism that can deliver that kind of broadband —true
broadband, they call it. The only other usable wire into people's houses is pretty slim on bandwidth. Try getting a digital subscriber line to pump TV signals to three TVs — while moving data briskly from the PC to the Internet and handling a few phone lines worth of conversation — they chortle.


Broadband is all about bandwidth, and cable has the most, they conclude. So — perhaps an index finger is wagging now — equating broadband with fast Internet service is a failure of potential. It's like saying that Burger King sells french fries, or that Procter & Gamble sells bath soaps.

But now, there appears to be a new twig on the broadband branch. It's a potent, if implausible notion. But for the broadband fanatic, it's nearly as good as a fast-forward feature for live television.

The essence of the idea — which eminated from a small, odd pocket of scientists in northern Ohio — is that broadband can be manipulated to trigger four of the five human senses.

Sight is easy.

So is sound.

Smell, they submit, is hardly mainstream, but it's been done. The last few Consumer Electronics Shows produced a toaster-sized device that linked up to the PC and emitted mood smells.

Maybe it's not the first thing on the wish list (or even the last), but nonetheless, the smell-o-rama concept has been demonstrated as technically possible.

Taste, the one of the five senses that's beyond reach, remains impossible for now.


Which leaves touch — actual tactile response. If you're thinking of rumblers under the cushions that go bouncy bouncy when synced up with, say, the buffalo stampede scene in Dances With Wolves, think again.

No, the broadband evangelists among us point to a new form of tactile stimulus: A way to induce the hair-raising feeling described by the "I see dead people" boy in The Sixth Sense.

The technology of it is a mouthful: A phased array of ultrasonic transducers. Translation: Large panels populated with tiny speakers that can blast sound waves well beyond the range of human hearing. (Well beyond cat-and-dog range, too.)

When placed precisely 12.7 feet apart, these transducers manipulate (transmit and cancel out) the supersonic waves in a way that apparently creates a very real sensation of physical touch — especially on exposed areas of skin.

It works sort of like this: The supersonic waves vibrate the body's thinner hairs. The specificity of the vibrations creates a sympathetic vibration in the subcutaneous follicles. The follicles' synaptic nodes misinterpret the sympathetic vibration as physical touch.

The potential applications for broadband-delivered hair-raising are plentiful. Supersonic synching with the spookier scenes in scary movies is fairly obvious. Other types of content, perhaps best described as the opposite of Sesame Street, could also benefit.

The difficult part, as with all new technologies, is the timing. Right now, the sympathetic vibrations created by the supersonic waves are fairly repeatable, which is good news, in scientific terms. Scientists and engineers like things that repeat predictably.

But any type of bonding between technology and human physiology is bound to take a long time to get from the laboratory to the streets.

Maybe by April Fool's Day in, oh, 20 or so years.