Consumer electronics 2011: the future is wireless

Next year's Las Vegas gadget fest could be dominated by Wi-Fi Direct, a technology that will allow all sorts of devices to connect to each other

If one were to guess what will be the big star of next year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it wouldn't be too crazy to suggest a new wireless technology called Wi-Fi Direct.

Think of it as the same sort of wireless internet access you get when you connect your laptop at a local café, except it'll be on everything — your television, your camera and even your printer. By next year's annual gadget circus in Las Vegas, Wi-Fi Direct will be allowing all sorts of devices to connect to the internet, and each other. More importantly, it will offer the promise of largely removing those scourges of the technology world: cables and wires.

"You can expect that to be the case. Our members have been very energized around this program," says Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, in an interview at this year's recently concluded CES. "There's a perfect storm brewing with consumer demands and expectations."

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a technology standardization and testing group started initially in 1999 by six companies including Nokia and Lucent. Based in Austin, Texas, it has since grown to more than 300 members, including a who's who of technology — Apple, Microsoft, Sony and Cisco, just to name a few.

The Alliance tests and certifies new Wi-Fi standards and products, and expects members to ship 500 million such devices — including games consoles, computers and smartphones — this year. By 2013, with Wi-Fi Direct being added to consumer electronics of all sorts, that number is expected to grow to more than 1.2 billion.

Wi-Fi Direct, first announced in October, is a technology that allows gadgets equipped with Wi-Fi chips to communicate with each other without having to go through an intermediary device, such as an internet router.

The examples, Figueroa says, are numerous. You could send photos from a digital camera directly to a printer, or connect a mouse to a laptop, which is then connected to a monitor, or transmit sound from your home theatre amplifier to speakers around the house, all wirelessly.

"Applications like that are just the beginning because our members have proven time and time again that when we give them a technical solution, they get creative and come up with all kinds of products," he says.

Unlike existing wireless technologies, all of this will be standardized, interoperable across brands and benefit from the advantages of Wi-Fi — namely security, range up to 200 metres and transfer speeds up to 250 megabits per second.

The Wi-Fi Alliance expects the first Wi-Fi Direct-equipped devices to become available in mid-2010, with more coming rapidly after that. And while most new electronics will come with Direct, existing Wi-Fi-capable devices will only need a software update to become compatible. Moreover, only one device in a home or office will need Wi-Fi Direct, whereupon it will act as a sort of network hub for all other gadgets connecting to it.

"To the devices that don't have Wi-Fi Direct, it will appear as if they are joining a Wi-Fi network," Figueroa says.

Unlike some technologies that are hyped at CES but which are supported by questionable consumer demand — like 3D TV at this year's show — Wi-Fi Direct is likely to be an instant hit at next year's event. A recent survey by the Wi-Fi Alliance found an overwhelming majority of consumers polled favoured more simple wireless connectivity in their devices, a finding that confirms a truism many gadget users already know.

It's a technology people can't help but love, Figueroa says.

"It's a true cable replacement."