Engineers at AT&T Labs demonstrated dozens of emerging communications technologies at an event in New York Monday. The company also defended its 3G network in light of reception problems and dropped calls involving Apple's iPhone 3G.
"That's a matter for Apple," AT&T chief technology officer John Donovan said in comments to reporters when asked if AT&T has felt much customer fallout with reports on 3G reception. Apple has issued software updates to fix the problem, which Donovan called part of a "standard process."
But Donovan also said that being the exclusive iPhone carrier in the US has benefited AT&T, which offers a 3G network used not only by the iPhone but by more than 50 wireless devices from a variety of manufacturers.
"The fallout [of the iPhone connection problems] has been positive," he said. "The attention to our 3G network has been good for us."
Donovan made the brief comment to reporters at the end of a day of demonstrations of emerging technologies, some that could become products or services.
Speech recognition technologies
The company showed more than 25 demonstrations of speech recognition technology on TVs, PCs and wireless devices using AT&T's "Watson" speech engine software. Also shown were interactive IPTV, 3D video (without glasses) and a demonstration of how AT&T engineers are using Second Life, a virtual online world, to help test rogue attacks on AT&T products.
Video-conferencing technology for home-based users and higher quality video-conferencing technology for businesses were also shown, although no formal plans for rolling out such services were given. The company also touted new tele-medicine applications, demonstrating how a patient could have his body temperature or weight sent from his home to a doctor's office via wireless Zigbee technology that connected to a router and then to a mobile network.
Donovan, who assumed his role on April 1, said the purpose of the event was to show the continuing technology prowess of AT&T Labs, which he called "the world's best." Because of the mergers of companies that created AT&T and other industry consolidations, the work of thousands of AT&T Labs scientists and engineers hasn't been as public as it was years ago, he said.
"Working here has been humbling," he said, noting that his own background was more focused on management than engineering.
A common theme of those emerging technologies involved IP networking and the way that a common protocol can converge wired and wireless networks, as well as bring together applications for use in both homes and businesses.
Because of the superiority of all-IP networking, Donovan said he is working with his managers to come up with a deadline for when AT&T will stop selling traditional circuit-switched products based on Time Division Multiplexing (TDM). After that deadline passes, AT&T will sell only IP-based routers and switches to its large business customers, he said.
"We're aggressive on IP," Donovan said. "The sooner [we have a deadline to end TDM], the better." Overall, IP traffic over the AT&T backbone was negligible in 2005, but it grew to 40 per cent in the last year, he said.
Donovan said he wasn't concerned about competitors stealing ideas from the technology demonstrations, partly because AT&T Labs is so proficient at commercializing its inventions.
"If we can't create faster than [competitors] can copy us, we're dead. I think we can innovate faster than they can copy," Donovan said.
There were two demonstrations of vide-oconferencing, one for home users and a higher-quality form for business users called telepresence, which requires the installation of a specially designed room with lighting and sound equipment. Donovan said telepresence has been "transformational" inside AT&T. The company has about a dozen telepresence rooms using gear from Cisco Systems. Another dozen rooms will soon be added because the technology is so popular, Donovan said.
Donovan said AT&T's telepresence experience has been so valuable that it helps drive expectations for an eventual product for home users. The home-based video-conferencing demonstration was shown on a high-definition monitor at 720p running side by side with a Cisco telepresence system. While the video resolution on the home-based monitor was clearly less crisp, it still provided 30 frames per second of video, with almost no blur in motion, all available over a 1Mbit/sec. wired network.
Donovan said he hoped that next year AT&T could add a home-based video-conferencing service to its U-verse offering, which is a combination of digital voice, TV and internet access sold in bundles to consumers. U-verse TV now includes 41 channels, as well as use of a digital video recorder (DVR).
Noting his own family's situation, where his siblings and his daughters live in various cities, Donovan said home-based videoconferencing will be "life-changing" for far-flung families who need to stay in touch with, for example, ailing elderly relatives and others who can't easily travel.
Eventually, videoconferencing will be possible with the iPhone and other handheld wireless devices, Donoval said, although yesterday's event didn't feature demonstrations of such technologies.
What's on TV
The variety of demonstrations involving TV included one featuring a laboratory prototype of a TV controller with a built-in microphone that allows people to change channels and conduct searches with voice commands. The controller relies on AT&T's Watson voice engine to produce graphical searches.
The iPhone was also used to search through video data banks, including one similar to what a home user might have on a DVR. The searches could be based on text or images. Therefore, the technology could be used in education and business settings where video archives are kept, AT&T officials said.
In one demonstration, iPhone was also used for web searches that incorporated voice commands. An engineer asked to find pizza shops in lower Manhattan, and the search yielded a map of clickable sites on the iPhone screen. That technology could eventually be available through Apple's AppStore, along with several other new iPhone tools. Other demonstrations involving the iPhone included an application that allowed two iPhone users to play a card game via a WiFi network. Another application, known as "Splat," allows a user to point an iPhone at a TV monitor to throw an animated tomato at the TV screen, or shoot a bullet at the screen, leaving a simulated bullet hole. "If we link mobility to the TV product, those two are very complementary," Donovan said.
Several related demonstrations showed how home users could answer a call or monitor their voice mail through a TV set. Eventually, U-verse could link a TV monitor and a PC to provide morning traffic reports with live camera shots of traffic congestion spots. Another tool would allow people to search TV content to find recent broadcasts that used specific words, such as "current Iraq footage."
AT&T Labs is also researching ways to enhance video with 3-D features; people would be able to view the 3-D content on 3-D-ready TV monitors that don't require users to wear special glasses. Today such monitors sell for thousands of dollars, but AT&T recognizes that 3-D video monitors could be as popular as high definition has become, officials said.
The telemedicine demonstration featured a range of products that could be used to monitor a patient's health remotely and wirelessly. All could involve sending data over Zigbee-based wireless networks, which require very low bandwidth and don't need a lot power, AT&T engineers said.
One device was a pill reminder, a box with smaller boxes inside of it to provide daily doses of medications. Each daily dose container would beep and light up to remind a patient when medication was required. The device could then send a signal saying the door had been opened to the dose; that message would then be carried over a VPN-protected network to a doctor or other medical specialist.
Another demonstration showed a Second Life real-time virtual interface that AT&T engineers in Atlanta, Austin and New York have been using to jointly monitor tests of rogue attacks on network devices, such as set-top boxes and other networking gear.
The virtual interface helps the remote engineers see the pathway of the network attack performed in a laboratory on real devices in one of the three cities. That way, the testers in all three cities can judge when the attack started, how long it took and what network links are involved, engineers said.