After phones and laptops, it’s time for plasma TV, video game consoles and DVD players to learn to link up without wires.
Vishal Chandra, the 29-year-old chief executive of VirtualWire Technologies, and his colleagues from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, (IIT-D) say they are two years away from developing a new generation of chips that will wirelessly link the sleek TV set mounted on your drawing room wall to the desktop computer in your study, all within Rs2,000.
Power waves: The team at VirtualWire Technologies with a prototype of their chip. The glowing boxes will be squeezed down to thumb-sized chips that can fit in televisions and set-top boxes. (from left) Vishal Chandra, Ajay Sharma, Saumya Sharma, Pradeep Agarwal, Praval Jain and Prashant Aggarwal. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Although Wi-fi networks and Bluetooth-enabled devices are smart enough to swap music and messages among terminals, they aren’t robust enough to stream high quality video signals.
“What if you wanted to stream a YouTube video on your LCD television? That’s where our technology comes in,” says Chandra, who started his company in 2003, while studying at IIT-D, with a Rs4 crore grant from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Today, with some of his college mates also on board, Chandra is keen to turn the clunky prototype he has developed into a thumb-sized chip that will power wireless broadband routers, set-top boxes, DVD players and game consoles.
The product has no competitor in India, says Chandra, and only one in the US, called Sybeam.
The unbranded technology currently occupies most of the 15-foot-long conference table at the VirtualWire office. A jumble of processors, heat sinks, miniature fans and, yes, wires, are arranged in two transparent boxes of acrylic. One box is the transmitter and the other is the receiver, each of which in turn connect to a flat-panel TV.
Praval Jain, Chandra’s younger colleague and one of the technical wizards on the team, plays a DVD of Walt Disney’s blockbuster animation classic The Lion King on a laptop. Almost immediately, the antics of Simba, the movie’s protagonist, come alive on both televisions.
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“These boxes will one day become chips,” says Prashant Aggarwal, vice-president, technology. “We have completed baseband (preliminary) chip designs, and in two years we should have the physical chip ready for TV manufacturers, and we have filed for the necessary patents.”
The real innovation, says the team, lies in the chip’s design and its ability to send and receive data at one gigabit per second, or about 1,000 times faster than wireless Internet speeds currently available in homes.
It was a desire to develop a contemporary high technology product locally, and a realization that Indians are accessing the Internet wirelessly at rapidly increasing speeds that gave Chandra the idea.
India’s market for wireless broadband will grow to $1 billion (Rs4,650 crore) by 2012, estimates a study by Tonse Telecom, a telecom analyst firm in Bangalore, for the global trade body Wi-Fi Alliance.
Phone firms will be rolling out high-speed, third-generation (3G) mobile and wireless broadband services, with auctions for licences having just been completed.
Within the home, too, wireless connections are likely to proliferate.
“Optical fibre networks offering enormous, cheap bandwidth are fast replacing phone lines, which have much lower data-carrying capacity. So devices within the house are going to be under-utilized if they are still dependent on wires and cables,” says Chandra.
But while his firm can see the development of the chip through, it will need another $10 million to produce the chips on a large scale and commercialize the technology.
Chandra doesn’t expect venture capitalists to be lining up to fund his product. “If I launched a services company or a travel portal, funding would be easy; but Indian venture capitalists are generally cagey about investing in homegrown product start-up companies.”
His hopes once again rest on the government to carry his innovation forward. “When CSIR funded us under their New Millenium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative programme, we were among the highest recipients of their funds,” he says. “So if they believe in us, we could get more funds from them.”