Rabbit takes a leap forward in race to network devices
By Thomas Crampton International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, JULY 17, 2005
OXFORD, England For Rafi Haladjian, the next leap ahead in technology starts with a toy called Nabaztag.
A plastic box shaped like a rabbit, with pastel ears and facial features akin to Hello Kitty, it has a few flashing lights, a rudimentary speaker, one button and a name derived from the Armenian word for rabbit.
The device's key characteristic is permanent wireless connectivity to the Internet via a Wi-Fi network, preferably one that stretches across the entire city in which it is located.
''This rabbit is not beautiful, it is not smart, and it is not that useful, but this first generation has already sold out,'' said Haladjian, an Armenian who has long lived in France. ''Wireless-linked devices will soon be everywhere, and we are now taking the first steps using Wi-Fi.''
Introduced in Oxford last week at the first European meeting of the Silicon Valley-based TED conference — an acronym for technology, entertainment and design — the rabbit concept received rave reviews from attendees as a first in the next wave of wireless devices.
''I'll be the first one to buy a rabbit, and I can't wait to plug it in — but then, I am a geek,'' said Steve Lavi, managing director of AI Investments, an Amsterdam-based technology venture capital fund. ''The device needs more utility for most users, but it may only take small changes to go mass market.''
In an example of how technology innovators are sometimes forced to create markets for their own products, Haladjian's rabbit company, Violet, is paired up with another company he founded, Ozone, which is building a Wi-Fi network to cover Paris.
For now, the rabbit remains a basic communications device that uses lights, sounds and movements of its ears to discreetly pass on messages to anyone nearby. Sounds can include MP3 files of music, voice or noises, and any combinations of colored lights and patterns can be used to signal specific information. It costs ?95, or $115, plus a ?3.90 monthly subscription fee.
Some of the functions that are available include a shining yellow light to indicate that the weather will be sunny; a rising or falling stock price shown by a pattern of lights; or the twisting of an ear when someone wants to get in touch without interrupting a meeting with a phone call.
By far the most popular application among the initial users, however, is the ability to send an SMS, or short messaging system, message to the device to make it throb red, telling a loved one that they are being thought about.
''A device like this changes the actual environment of the recipient, kind of like a bouquet of flowers,'' said John Gage, chief researcher at Sun Microsystems, at the TED forum. ''Once they get enough of them out there, I would love to see a global piece of installation art created by moving all their ears at once.''
It is the networked aspect of the rabbit and other devices that Haladjian sees as driving demand. In one version of networked communications, for example, Haladjian each evening sends an SMS to get a rabbit in each of his children's bedrooms to tell them that supper is ready. That is just the most basic illustration of a world in which Haladjian sees people living within personalized networks of multiple smart wireless devices.
''Your alarm clock, coffee maker and heater should all adjust in a synchronized manner to the time at which you want to get up,'' Haladjian said. ''The ultimate goal is to link all devices within a home and even a city for your convenience.''
Future applications for the rabbit and other devices would rely on constant access to the wireless Internet, and Haladjian claims he has already covered 20 percent of Paris with his Ozone network.
Some of the things he is working on include an announcement by the rabbit when a specific bus nears the neighborhood in the morning; a teddy bear that can teach a child a language; an iPod-like device that receives TV broadcasts across the network; and video games that mix reality on the streets of Paris with the action on the screen.
''Believe me, I am not taking the trouble to build this network to help people download e-mail in a café,'' Haladjian said. ''Our success will depend on getting people to use the rabbit and other devices that rely on a pervasive high-speed wireless network.''
His next application — to be introduced in September — will be a mobile telephone that can make calls over the Internet.
Calls within France will cost nothing beyond the ?9 monthly subscription fee, Haladjian said, while calls to places outside the country will be a small fraction of the price offered by regular phone companies.
The advantages of Wi-Fi over all other available technologies are considerable, Haladjian believes. Broadcast units for Wi-Fi are far cheaper to install than standard mobile phone towers, and Wi-Fi offers bandwidth far greater than even the latest generation of third-generation handsets.
Niklas Zennstrom, chief executive of Skype, the largest Internet-based telephone service, said he shared Haladjian's vision for the power of Wi-Fi networks.
''We are already working hard to link up with Wi-Fi hot spot networks in various cities,'' Zennstrom said. ''Wi-Fi chips are small, cheap and everywhere, so we can start using them quickly.''
While Zennstrom said that his company intended to introduce a hand-held phone for making calls directly over Wi-Fi this autumn, there is every reason for him to purchase bandwidth wholesale from a company that covers a major city.
Various city governments have made it their stated objective to offer wireless Internet to their residents, but many such efforts have been slow, so Haladjian said he began cobbling together his Paris network by word of mouth.
Haladjian has been building the network by asking city residents to sign up on his company's Web site to offer antenna space on their roof and roughly ?10 in electricity per year in exchange for getting free wireless Internet access within a range of several hundred meters.
People who want to use the network but cannot or do not want to put an antenna on the roof — of whom there are currently several hundred — pay ?18 per month for unlimited access to the network.
Each roof unit costs Haladjian's company roughly ?5,000 to install. The network bounces the signal from antenna to antenna, so only a few antennas need to be connected to the Internet via a land line.
''The units are so cheap that we don't worry about overlap,'' Haladjian said. ''Eventually, we may have to pay to place units in some key areas.''
So far 400 people are providing space for antennas, and new units are coming online at a rate of about 50 per month. By the end of next year, Haladjian intends to have the entire city blanketed with roughly 2,200 antennas.
For all his big visions of wireless networked devices, Haladjian said that he remained dedicated to the principle of improvisation.
Acting on that concept, the programming code for the rabbit will be made public within several months, at which point he hopes to learn from users what sort of things they want from the device.
''My customers will direct this journey,'' Haladjian said.
Citing the feature that prompts the Nabaztag to throb red when a loved one sends an SMS as an example, Haladjian added, ''The rabbit's most popular feature was only an afterthought for me.''
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