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Lay your tablet on a table, join its network

A university lab is showing its concept of networks formed by laying gadgets on shared surfaces

A research team is demonstrating tables that form local networks among the devices laid upon their surfaces, while also providing wireless charging, at the Ceatec electronics show in Japan.

The concept is meant to support ad-hoc networks that are more secure and local than current Wi-Fi networks, without the need for cables. The team from Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo that is working on the technology envisions the tables being used in business meetings or classrooms, where temporary, instant connections are useful.

(See a demonstration from the show floor on YouTube.)

The tables are made using a thin sheet made of small mesh panels, which can contain electromagnetic waves in two dimensions, while also carrying a small electric current. Devices that interact with the sheet must generally be equipped with a special coupler, although team members said it is also possible to use traditional Wi-Fi antennas for Internet in some cases.

"In standard wireless connections, electromagnetic waves are sent through the air, but here connections are made by making contact with the surface," said Akihito Noda, a doctoral student at the University of Tokyo.

"Requiring surface contact creates a lot of restrictions, but on the other hand there are also some benefits. For instance, if you don't set devices on the surface, no false connections can be made, so there are security benefits."

At a demonstration on the exhibition floor, tablets laid on a table connected easily to a networked router on the same table, avoiding the morass of competing Wi-Fi signals on the show floor. The table also provided enough power to slowly charge a mobile phone and as well as run small fans and LED lights.

All devices displayed where equipped with the special couplers, and the low power supply was an obvious limit on the types of gadgets that could be displayed.

Noda said Internet connections run at Wi-Fi speeds. For charging, 60-centimeter-square sheets have been tested as safely taking 10 watts of power without any ill effects on users. Devices laid on such sheets charge at about 4 watts.

The team, which is working with large Japanese corporations like NEC to develop the technology, is also planning to incorporate it into home furniture, to create surfaces where users can lay their gadgets to automatically charge and join their personal network.

The Ceatec exhibition, Japan's largest electronics show, runs this week at Makuhari, just outside of Tokyo.


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