[ISN] Infrared meets speed and security needs

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Tue May 31 03:06:51 EDT 2005


By John Earley 
31 May 2005 

You would be forgiven for believing that infrared data connectivity 
has been sidelined by the arrival of radio frequency wireless Lan 
standards-based equipment, which has enjoyed phenomenal exponential 
growth in recent years. But with more than 500 million infrared 
interfaces shipping each year, it clearly dwarfs WLan in the volume 

And don't assume that this market is sustained by remote- control 
units, for nearly half of the interfaces shipped conform to the 
Infrared Data Association (IRDA) standard, which clearly targets data 

Famously associated with applications such as personal digital 
assistant to laptop synchronisation, PDA business card exchange and 
short-haul mobile phone data transfer; IRDA, with its short range and 
relatively low 4mbps throughput, was understandably discounted by the 
IT community as irrelevant for WLan application.

Infrared has squared up to recent competition from Bluetooth, an 
alternative radio frequency communications standard designed to 
support similar connectivity to IRDA. Simple set-up and good 
reliability initially secured IRDA's popularity over Bluetooth. More 
recently, questions about Bluetooth's inherent insecurity have 
reinforced IRDA's popularity.

IRDA, with its range limit of 1m and inability to penetrate walls, is 
extremely secure. Bluetooth, on the other hand, is mired in 
controversy, with numerous hacking stories and reminders to users to 
disable it when not in use. But really, the battle with Bluetooth is 
small beer in comparison with the prize of ubiquitous connectivity on 
which IRDA is focused.

IRDA is on the move, with activity and initiatives that are likely to 
further increase the already significant number of unit shipments. 
Moreover, emerging applications will cause pause for thought and 
re-evaluation of infrared and its benefits for widespread data 
communications uses.

This even applies to WLan, particularly where security is paramount or 
third-party interference is affecting the user experience.

The infrared supplier community has embraced the challenge to deliver 
data rates in excess of 100mbps, with talk of possibly achieving 
500mbps to accommodate a wide range of imaginative applications for 
which real demand has already been identified in Japan and the Far 

Two immediate applications that are set to transform our lives are 
multimedia file transfers and electronic funds transfer at the point 
of sale.

Fast-connect methods allow near instant exchange of high-definition 
photos between digital cameras, phones, PDAs and, potentially, 
television sets over infrared transmissions. An interface to 
television sets of the future will enable home users to simply view 
their photo albums through their TV where the whole family can gather 

Next generation multimedia file transfer will be more demanding of 
technology than traditional Jpeg photos or short audio files and ring 

In the near future consumers will be able to download video films from 
kiosks, which are already being designed and built and will soon be 
installed at stores, railway stations and airports. The video rental 
industry is preparing for change far more significant than the recent 
migration from video tape to DVD.

The concept is simple. Before embarking upon a journey the consumer 
downloads a film to their phone or PDA for viewing en route. Both 
radio frequency WLan and Bluetooth are inappropriate vehicles, since 
it would not take long for people to work out how to share a single 

Infrared, on the other hand, cannot permeate walls or physical 
barriers and, with the IRDA specification limiting range to 1m, it is 
ideal for this application. Of course the size of the files in 
question renders a throughput of 4mbps or 16mbps inadequate, but with 
potential data rates exceeding 100mbps in the relatively near future 
IRDA is set to offer sufficient performance to satisfy users rushing 
for planes and trains. In making a quantum leap in data rates, IRDA 
has not forgotten the mantra of low power consumption, essential for 
portable equipment, and another area in which it scores over radio 
frequency WLan.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the same application will 
migrate to set-top TV boxes where a home user will be able to point a 
phone or PDA and upload a film for viewing later. When combined with 
the digital wallet of the future the commercial opportunities are 

For this vision to become reality it will be necessary for IRDA to 
review its commitment to short range, but there are pressures to do so 
from a variety of sources.

The mobile phone is fast becoming a digital wallet. If you browse the 
menu of a modern device, you will see options to store credit card 
details. At first glance this would appear to be a useful data 
back-up. However, trials already under way in Japan point to a more 
functional objective.

Currently you carry a wad of credit cards with magnetic stripes and 
intelligent chips, storing information that allows you to purchase 
goods and services. In addition to your credit/debit card details, 
other information that could easily be stored on your phone might 
include passes for public transport, discount tokens and 
awards/loyalty points.

At the point of sale, you will point and shoot your digital wallet to 
an Epos terminal, a vending machine, car parking barrier, railway 
station access gate etc, to pay.

There are strong return on investment arguments to support the 
business case. Retailers are excited by the opportunity to speed up 
transactions at the point of sale and, along with the banking 
fraternity, see obvious benefits in digital receipts that will be 
issued to your phone as opposed to the paper-based, easily misplaced 

 From a consumer standpoint, ease of use (imagine never having to 
queue for a train or bus ticket) coupled with the potential personal
money management programs that will doubtless accompany the
technology, make the proposition equally attractive.

IRDA has a special interest group targeting this initiative. The group 
is already in collusion with other standards bodies, including retail 
and banking consortia to ensure a universal, dependable and secure 

With security clearly paramount, IRDA wins out as the obvious 
communications medium with its high speed, low distance and limited 
field of view, coupled with a low power consumption rate. IRDA has 
obvious security attractions that cannot be matched by WLan or 

Considerable work has been completed by the infrared financial 
messaging group and trials are under way. Commercially available RS232 
to IRDA adaptors ensure low-cost easy upgrade of existing Epos 
terminals and vending equipment.

For sceptics concerned about the ramifications of having a phone 
stolen it is worth noting that the pilot projects are largely taking 
place in Japan, where the 40 million strong mobile phone user base is 
less concerned about phone theft. In any event, it is arguably much 
easier for credit to be abused with card-based systems than it will be 
with a digital wallet.

A number of emerging applications are likely to move IRDA to endorse a 
variety of standards in much the same way that the IEEE concerns 
itself with multiple media for data communications.

A practical TV-based photo album, for example, is likely to see 
consumers demanding communications distances greater than 1m to allow 
the family to sit around the living room for the show.

Pointing and uploading Powerpoint slides one at a time to projectors 
will doubtless need to afford the presenter an opportunity to move 
around a stage at will, once again giving cause for reviewing 
extensions to the 1m limit.

An application that has been presented to IRDA supporting distances of 
300m or more is already being embraced by highways agencies in Korea, 
Europe and the US that are seeking low-cost dependable methods for 
collecting motorway tolls.

To date, radio frequency products have dominated this market, but 
there are attractions to infrared. The lower cost of communications 
components is not lost on agencies or consumers.

Equally important is modern infrared technology's tolerance to 
third-party interference, notably metallic elements in windscreens, 
which have the propensity to block radio frequency communication. Add 
your electronic wallet and it becomes clear that infrared should be 
actively considered for longer-range communications, which leads to 
the potential for a WLan architecture based on infrared.

About six years ago, I extolled the virtue of infrared WLan at an 
international press symposium, only to be largely dismissed by a 
community naturally excited by the success of emerging radio frequency 
standards. But with the throughput achievements that I predicted at 
the time now becoming a reality, it begs the question what advantages 
infrared WLan could bring over radio frequency alternatives.

Radio frequency WLans are not utopian. There is third-party 
interference from microwave ovens, Dect phones and Bluetooth devices. 
There are security concerns surrounding an inability to trap radio 
waves within a building, and there are spectrum planning challenges 
coming to the fore as we begin to saturate the airwaves.

Infrared cannot penetrate walls, and this gives a high degree of 
control over data leakage. It is not subject to spectrum restrictions, 
as is the case with radio frequency communications, alleviating much 
of the potential radio planning hassle.

Until now data rates, range and field of view limitations have made 
IRDA-based technology unsuitable for WLan applications. But with the 
prospect of these issues being addressed in a standards-compliant 
manner there is a distinct possibility that low-cost infrared products 
will emerge, where it will have particular appeal in certain 

Within military and other high security environs, high-speed infrared 
WLan offers ease of secure implementation.

In hospitals, aircraft and other applications where third-party 
equipment is sensitive to radio frequency interference, an infrared 
WLan can be safely and easily deployed.

And who knows, once infrared WLan equipment becomes commercially 
available it is not inconceivable that the low-cost arch- itecture of 
the communications system may make the apparently collapsed prices of 
radio frequency WLan equipment today seem outrageously expensive.

John Earley is general manager at wireless research firm Supergold


What is IRDA and what is it for?

The Infrared Data Association is a membership-based organisation.

It was founded in 1993 and is dedicated to developing standards for 
wireless, infrared transmission systems between computers.

IRDA ports fitted to a laptop or personal digital assistant can 
exchange data with a desktop computer or use a printer without a cable 

Just as a TV remote control requires line-of-sight access, IRDA 
transmissions are restricted by obstacles and walls, which can be a 
security benefit.

The IRDA serial infrared physical layer provides a half-duplex 
connection of up to 115.2kbps. At this speed a low-cost chip can be 
used, although more expensive, high-speed extensions up to 4mbps for 
fast infrared have also been defined.

To enable the simultaneous handshaking and multiplexing of several 
different data streams IRDA uses the infrared link access protocol and 
the infrared link management protocol.


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