San Diego/San Francisco: It can take an hour or more to download a full-length feature movie from the Internet today. In the near future, it could take only a second.
IBM on 26 March unveiled a new type of processor technology it claims can move data such as video at a superfast 160 gigabits per second.
At that rate, computers, televisions or TV set-top boxes could download high-definition video from the Web almost instantaneously and easily move it from one device to another on a home network. Businesses could transfer mountains of data without delays.
IBM vice president and technology guru Bernard Meyerson said within a few years, these light-based transceiver chips could be used in to transmit huge volumes of data in critical chokepoints on the Internet or in large computer networks.
"What we've been able to do is pack an unprecedented amount of bandwidth into a little chip-like optical transceiver," explained IBM researcher Marc Taubenblatt. "We think this could be cheap enough where TV vendors (and other electronics makers) could very easily" incorporate them into their devices.
The new IBM chipset could be years from hitting the market. Even then, it faces plenty of hurdles, not the least of which is compatibility with more traditional equipment in use today.
But IBM plans to unveil a prototype and discuss the technology publicly at an industry trade show in Anaheim, Calif. This set of prototype chips is a specific type of processor called a transceiver -- a fancy name for a device that can both send and receive data.
IBM isn't alone in searching for solutions to solve technological problems that are just beginning to surface as the use of video explodes on the Web and in home PCs.
"I think there's going to be a whole plethora of new equipment we're probably looking at in the next couple of years to help distribute video, make it work better and make sure you're watching at the highest quality possible," said Eve Griliches, an analyst with technology research firm IDC.
Some problems, such as poor quality and slow transfer rates, already are starting to occur as the Web's broadband "pipes" get increasingly clogged with space-hogging video, Griliches said.
As the volume of video on the Web continues to increase, problems could hamper the industry's growth potential, she added.
IBM's new chipset essentially relies on the technology behind fiber optics to move video and other data quickly.
Instead of using traditional hair-thin wires to transmit data with electrons, the new semiconductors use various polymer materials to move data with pulses of light.
As a result, IBM claims its new chipsets can transfer data at speeds more than eight times faster than similar optical components today.
And since they're are made using the same low-cost, high-volume semiconductor manufacturing techniques in use today, they can be produced quickly, relatively cheaply and in large volumes, Taubenblatt said.
As the volume of data flowing through computer networks increases dramatically with the advent of high-definition video, this transceiver technology could help break looming bottlenecks that might otherwise create digital traffic jams.
Ironically, the new technology, developed in IBM's labs in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., wasn't originally intended for video and everyday consumer Web applications.
The company started working on it about four years ago as part of a project for DARPA, the Defense Department's research arm, which was looking for new ways to transfer large amounts of data more quickly.
Only after the recent surge in video usage on the Web did IBM researchers begin to consider adapting the technology for commercial applications too, Taubenblatt said.
"All the sudden we started looking at this and saying, “Hey, this is going to be cheap, easy to build and could easily be used in a home network or high-definition TV," he said.
For the foreseeable future, this laser-driven transceiver technology is likely to find its use in applications like Internet routers and switches, and network server centers, which constantly ship huge volumes of data at high speeds.