Exploring the Possibilities of P2P Wireless

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2001

This idea is under the radar at the moment. It won't be for long, and the implications are huge.

by Steve Mollman and Sam Joseph

heartA FEW YEARS AGO A TV commercial for Palm hinted at the potential of wireless peer-to-peer networking. A young man and woman make eye contact -- a kind of "I've finally found the one" eye contact -- but can't talk to each other because he's sitting in a train about to leave and she's standing on the platform. No problem. He whips out his Palm, she whips out hers, and they exchange their contact details wirelessly through the infrared ports. Problem solved, they live happily ever after. It was a great ad, but while PDAs like the Palm have certainly taken off, it's more for their organizing capabilities than wireless P2P.

Fast forward to Tokyo in 2001, where cellphones are as ubiquitous as keys and wallets. People already share emails, reserve restaurants, trade stocks, and look for the nearest Starbucks using their keitai. How long before they start imitating the couple in the Palm ad -- but in ways we haven't even imagined yet?

Suppose a couple meets in a crowded, dead-silent doctor's waiting room instead. First they share the steamy glance, then ...what? Knowing the Japanese in particular, it's too awkward to simply approach one another, especially in front of a group of bored people. No problem. They both have cellphones equipped with software from a company called ...oh, let's say Level of Me Inc. They go to the Level of Me area from their portal site and point their phones at each other. Each selects Level 1 -- name, place of birth, job title, hobbies -- and hits Send. Without disturbing, or accidentally entertaining, anyone else in the room, they've managed to communicate with one another. Now on to the next step. Let's say the girl hates accountants, and the guy's an accountant. In this case she probably puts her phone back in her purse and picks up a magazine. Tough break, guy, better luck next time. But if he passes the first test, they could go on through their various levels, getting to know each other better and better, until she reveals her "instant chat" code. After that it's just a matter of typing in a time and place to meet. This love affair made possible by wireless P2P.

Here's another one: Earthquake. You're in a Tokyo subway when it happens. Underground. It's dark. You survived and are uninjured, but a man lying next to you sounds badly injured. Don't bother calling for a doctor -- your keitai won't work underground. So switch to Emergency P2P, software provided by Help Is Near Inc. and required by the government to be installed on all cellphones sold in Japan, just for this reason. You need to find the nearest doctor, so you send out your request on the Emergency P2P service. Within a 10-meter radius -- the maximum range of the transmission -- no one's cellphone responds that its owner is a registered doctor. But the query gets passed on from each of the cellphones within that radius to each one in their radius, and so on all the way down the subway. In the last car is a doctor. His phone gives a distinctive beep to indicate someone is searching for him over the Emergency P2P service. He logs on, asks you where you're located, and indicates he's on his way. This rescue made possible by wireless P2P.

The above scenarios are not all that unlikely in Tokyo's near future. Bluetooth, a radio-based technology, will allow devices to communicate wirelessly. It will be in Japan's cellphone handsets very shortly now. But even if it doesn't happen through Bluetooth, wireless communication of data between two personal devices -- direct communication, with no server involved -- is bound to take off in a big way. We're betting it will happen in Tokyo first, because it's got the population density, lots of cellphone usage, and, of course, the technology- and mobility-loving Japanese.

Let's keep exploring the possibilities. Imagine a cellphone handset that morphs transformer-like into a headset. A lens goes over one eye. Tune in to the right frequency and you can see the "other side" of the person you're talking to. Say he's wearing a business suit. You're in a bar, after work. Both drunk. He confesses to you that he's a big klingon freak. In fact, he gives you a code for the Level of Me service mentioned above. You enter the code, look through the lens, and -- whoa -- he's a klingon. He did it by constructing an avatar appearance that's superimposed over his real-world appearance but visible only to those to whom he gives the code and whom are sitting within a 10-meter range of him.

Sound too sci-fi? Can't blame you for thinking so. But looking at the current technological and cultural trends in Japan and extrapolating their direction -- the future could be closer than you think.

Suppose you're in an alternative album collector's shop. You're looking for a particularly rare title, but the shop doesn't have it. Hold on -- there are 15 other people in the store. Their very presence indicates they're probably collectors of hard-to-find albums as well. So you log on to P2P Anyone Have It?, enter the name of the album, and click I Want It. A distinctive ring goes off nearby. A guy on the other side of the room picks up his phone, checks out your message, and -- he doesn't know it's you yet -- clicks I Have It, which automatically includes his number. You get his message, click his number, start talking, hang up because you're so near, and start talking about a deal.

Try this one: your phone gives a distinctive ring, the one for your P2P FanClub service, which you'd never thought you'd use. But apparently Tanohana, your favorite sumo wrestler, has been spotted nearby. You got the ring because you're within the designated radius. Quick! Find out where he is! You flip open your phone, click FanClub, and read the message. "Just saw Tanohana coming out of the Hawaii hamburger restaurant. He's heading up Koto Dori now, towards the Fuji Xerox building!" Awesome! Minutes later, you're pestering your hero with an autograph request. This annoying intrusion made possible by wireless P2P.

Another scenario: You've just finished watching a movie in a theater. As far as you and your companion can tell, the film was horrible, but you need the opinions of others to confirm it for you. You go to AudienceMeter on your cellphone. If others sitting within 10 meters of you graded the movie, you can see what they gave it. You flip through the grades one by one. Everyone else, it turns out, loved it. Who are these people?! No answer to that question, because the service won't indicate who around you said what, if anything. Still damn fun, though.

Because they're so packed in, audiences are the ideal medium for P2P wireless. Why not see what those around you think about that keynote speech? That presidential debate? That concert?

Knowing the way the Japanese approach technology, wireless P2P in this country will probably be fun and convenient. Outside Japan, who knows? It could turn into a way for terrorist groups to exchange data with no central server and thus no central authority involved. On the flip side, the ability to bypass a central server could be a good thing for democracy advocates living under oppressive governments. Copyright owners could face a nightmare: imagine a guy standing on the corner outside the Virgin megastore selling all the songs from the No. 1 CD at 50 cents a pop. Just point your cellphone this way. Who's gonna know what's being transmitted? How can you track it?

But now we're straying too far from the focus of this magazine, so we'll end this discussion here. We encourage those who have read this to set up new mailing lists and continue with the scenario building. Forget for a moment the current limitations on battery and processing power, the lack of common protocols, all the tech stuff. Remember for a moment how long the Internet itself stayed under the radar before hitting a critical point and rocketing skyward.

This could be huge. We think it will be.

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