28 October 2009

'Father of Wi-Fi' Honored With Science Prize

From ABC Science

John O'Sullivan says he wasn't setting out to revolutionise the 
digital age when he started his career in radio astronomy

The inventor of high-speed wireless networks has been awarded Australia's Prime Minister's Science Prize for 2009.

Electrical engineer Dr John O'Sullivan of CSIRO says "it's a real honour" to receive the prize, which was presented at a ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra this evening.

"It's a reflection of all those who have helped me and worked with me over the years," he says.

Wireless LAN, also known as Wi-Fi, allows devices such as mobile phones, lap tops and printers to connect to the internet remotely.

The technology is used daily in an estimated 1 billion devices around the world.

But O'Sullivan says he wasn't setting out to revolutionise the digital age when he started his science career in radio astronomy more than three decades ago.

"We were trying to detect [the radio pulse] of exploding mini black holes."

O'Sullivan says he and a group of researchers were filing through hundreds of metres of 35 millimetre film trying to look for the distinctive patterns of radio pulses.

Fourier Transforms

He decided there had to be a quicker and easier way to filter through the film and so developed a chip, called Fourier transforms, which could process the information more efficiently.

"Fourier transform is a mathematical process that takes a signal, voice or image, and splits it into its constituent frequencies."

O'Sullivan says once the signal is broken down into its frequencies, it becomes far more efficient to process.

While he never found mini-black holes, O'Sullivan's chips became a vital part of modern day computing.

In the early 1990's when portable computers and the internet were just emerging, O'Sullivan and his team at CSIRO started to look at the idea of networking.

"We could see that if you put portable computing together then networking then you really had something."

Wireless Revolution

Wireless LAN had been around since the 1970's says O'Sullivan, but it was very slow, much slower than wired computers.

"We believed the networking had to go as fast as the wires."

O'Sullivan says the problem with wireless networking is reverberation, where the radio waves from the outgoing signal bounce around the surrounding environment causing an echo that distorts the signal.

Utilising their past experience with Fourier transforms, O'Sullivan' and his team build a fast chip that could transmit the signal whilst reducing the echo.

O'Sullivan says it's "incredible" to think of the amount of people using the technology today.

"We thought we were starting something big, but we're blown away at how widespread it now is."

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