Phoenix Struts Its Wireless Stuff

scared audienceI’m watching on a wide-screen television the most painfully revolting thing I’ve ever seen, and Mikael Hällström is gleefully pointing at the screen.

“This is almost…almost…broadcast quality, and there’s no delay at all,” he said proudly. Hällström’s biggest problem in the coming months is whether to stay at Ericsson, where he has been for four years, or to head out with the spin-off he helped create.

These are good problems to have.

Truth be told, the resolution is more than “almost broadcast” – in fact it’s clear enough to give me nightmares for weeks and ponder each future meal carefully. We’re in Ericsson’s Stockholm headquarters, in a conference room that has been temporarily turned into both a highly impressive display of very cool technology and a chamber of horrors.

Here’s the story: Malmö University Hospital in southern Sweden wished to demonstrate to a hotel conference center packed with leading international medical observers a controversial, highly unorthodox and possibly revolutionary approach to an operation to remove a cancer in a patient’s rectum – going in from the top.

I’m watching the “highlights.”

I’m watching this to see a clear end-use example of the types of networks Ericsson believes will be prevalent in the very near future. And Ericsson Business Innovations (EBI), the “incubator” arm of Ericsson, is looking into using technology like this to create a number of businesses.

For example, EBI has also been working on something it calls the Phoenix Project, based around Ericsson’s Open Service Gateway Initiative (OSGi) protocol. Phoenix was set up to establish a solution for home health care, security and safety products, and EBI is looking internally at Ericsson, as well as at third parties, to develop other OSGi applications.

Now, that horrible tele-operation challenge I am trying not to remember was not part of Phoenix, but with it Phoenix saw a chance to strut its technological stuff. To this end it established a 24-megabit-per-second (MB/s) upstream and downstream connection between the hospital and the conference center (which are meters from one another) by way of a 750km loop through public networks using existing technology and infrastructure.

The setup included two cameras in the operating theatre – one on the surgeons and the other on the action – that broadcast to two projection devices in the conference center, both producing crystal clear 20 and 35 square-meter images. Real-time voice communication between the center and the theatre was a key element, allowing the surgeon to converse with the observers.

“You can’t have voice delays,” said Hällström, the simultaneously mild-mannered and intense architect of Phoenix, “and we did this without compression or echo canceling – if we used those, we could have gone several times farther.”

With traditional broadcasts, such as television, a gap between the time of broadcast and arrival at the user’s device doesn’t matter as it’s a one-way signal. But anyone who’s watched the poor CNN reporter, listening to a question by satellite and standing clueless, staring blankly at the camera for two to six seconds, can understand why a satellite hookup would be unacceptable in a tele-medical situation, where seconds count.

You might well wonder why Ericsson is in the television business, and the answer is that it’s not. It’s in the business of building up teams that will form the core of new units within Ericsson or of new companies that will be spun off.

The broadband system above grew out of research by Ericsson Media Lab and the work of Hällström and others in Ericsson working on telemedicine applications.

Phoenix To Be Spun Off

The goal is to have Phoenix, now still part of Ericsson, build up its system around OSGi, establish and maintain its standards and protocols, license users of the system from health care, security and other industries, and then eventually remove itself from the fray, licensing third party operators who will pay Phoenix for the right to operate the slice of the network in their special fields. Phoenix, of course, would then sit back and count its royalty and licensing income.

Phoenix’s E-Box is an OSGi-based system. It’s a home-running device that brays at you if you leave the iron on and potentially allows you to, for example, let your kids in before you’re home but deny them access to the garage, oven and VCR. The box controls safety issues like those, security (locks and alarms), as well as health-monitoring systems. EBI announced in October that it began an E-box trial run in 3,000 homes in Sweden.

“The Phoenix group deals with infrastructure and we need to have a network,” Hällström said. “We don’t want to operate the network, but we need to make sure that it is, in fact, a network, and it will be maintained and operated in the proper way.”

Working with partners in those related industries (they’ve embargoed us from saying even which space within the industries), other groups deal with the health care and security aspects of the applications, and another deals with the construction and installation aspects.

“We will start to roll this out in new houses initially,” Hällström said, “because then the costs of building the infrastructure in the house is near zero when looked at in context of the building costs. And we want to have a large base of customers.”

Opportunity for VCs

That’s an opportunity for VCs looking to back products in the related industries. EBI is actively seeking venture partners and offering support and resources for venture-funded companies who develop related technologies or end-user applications that would use the OSGi protocol.

“We believe a very strong part of Phoenix is the partner program, which is mainly venture-funded companies – and it’s not just the money, it’s the knowledge the VCs and third-party companies bring to the table,” Hällström said.

If the demonstration I saw is any indication, EBI has a lock on the networking part. Observers interviewed afterward said on camera that the setup was incredibly valuable and remarked that it could have an untold number of applications in medicine.

And, of course, they mentioned the vivacity of the colors. “I’ve seen lots of these types of presentations,” said one doctor. “Many times the details are fuzzy, and the colors are often washed. But here the colors were perfect, the resolution and clarity better than I’ve ever seen.”

 

Smart money would say that, at least technologically speaking, Phoenix should make the cut as a spin-off.