Steve Perlman is a long time, tech industry, serious inventor type, who has made a number of waves in the media networking business throughout an illustrious career. The first was QuickTime when he worked at Apple, then WebTV which he founded and sold to Microsoft for US$503 million in 1997 only 18 months after it started. He also created Onlive an innovative cloud-based gaming solution, that finally went under in 2012 without enough customers.
Now Perlman is claiming to have solved a huge problem for the cellular phone industry. Using some of his own basic research that went on even before his creating Onlive, about how signals propagate and how they can be managed, he is offering the promise of eliminating cellular congestion in crowded cities – both cheaply and effectively.
If that sounds like a con to you lots of other people have been suspicious as well, only his track record really suggests that he is a very serious guy. With the demise of Onlive, which took quite a few millions of OPM (other people’s money) down with it, venture capital money has been hesitant to gravitate towards him again however, having been burned once. And he has been said not to be the easiest person in the world to get along with either, by some.
So Perlman has been funding the new project himself in its own start-up, called Artemis Networks LLC. Perlman has been paying the bills for this to date himself out of his Reardon incubator that he set up with some of his share of the proceeds from the sale of WebTV.
Formerly called DIDO, which stands for “distributed in distributed out”, and which was perhaps a little too close to another term for a feminine device, the technology is now dubbed “pCell”. Its’ goal is to enable mobile data users to enjoy very fast data, and clear voice, connections without congestion, without dead zones, and without weak signals. According to Artemis pCell mobile networking will feel indistinguishable from using a regular fiber optic network.
So far there is only an impressive video on the company’s web site to show for it, where Perlman himself is showing about a dozen different regular mobile smartphones all running separate simultaneous 4-K video movies, which Perlman states simply would not be possible with regular cellular technology. The video is also published separately on YouTube here:
5G Service On Your 4G Phone
The crux of his case, for a technical simpleton this writer well typifies, is that first, regular cellular signals suffer when there are many of them in close proximity, which then degrades the experience for everybody, and does so at an increasing rate the more crowded such a network is. In other words all the other traffic within a regular mobile “cell”, which is typically about a kilometer or so in radius from its central antenna tower just interferes with your signal in that same cell.
So the more cities are densely populated such cells need to multiply and get closer together without even solving the problem. As more people buy phones and the more they use them the worse it has got even when additional spectrum is brought to bear.
The Artemis pCell approach has apparently found a way to make competing signals become quite happy to coexist together without any interference at all, or so Perlman claims. They do so by each phone effectively acting as its own cell, getting signals wherever it is from thousands of very cheap radios distributed around the city without any special antenna towers needed. This is then to be backed up by a very expensive data centre in the home office of a mobile service provider, one that uses complicated algorithms to create a bubble around each and every one of them in real time to keep the traffic moving.
The essence of it in plain English seems to be to somehow turn the issue of signal interference from a problem into an opportunity. When a mobile phone gets multiple signals at once presently it just muddles it up. Perlman’s intuition has been to turn that interference into a virtue – using the combining property of radio waves to “build” a signal that delivers exactly the right message to your iPad or other device.
By using multiple, and luckily very cheap, local radio transmitters the goal is to send radio waves that, when they do reach your iPad or iPhone, combine to produce a crystal clear signal. With many other devices around such a system then needs to precisely analyze wireless information from the devices all the time, and constantly recalculate the complex combinations of signals from each of the transmitters on the fly.
To process all that then of course needs some extremely powerful computers in the central office, and to do so at scale even if the theory works in practice must also then need some serious money, too, one can readily imagine.
However Perlman claims that on the customer side no special hardware is required inside any of the millions of phones or other devices already out there, whether 3G 4G or… whatever. It really can all be done, and done on the mobile carrier/Artemis network side of things at a central data centre is his proposition.
Whilst the press has been quick to pick up and report on his latest presentations there are still plenty of skeptics, and indeed there will be until there are large-scale technical trials that can definitively prove his case, one way or the other. This is Perlman’s next immediate goal therefore, to prove the case with a large-scale trial in San Francisco putting his pCell transmitters on 350 rooftops in San Francisco later this year. If he turns out to be right the entire cellular industry could be transformed overnight, or at lest over several years.
About Steve Perlman
Steve Perlman, who is aged 52, grew up in West Hartford Connecticut. From age 10 he attended the Talcott Mountain Academy of Science and Mathematics in Avon, Connecticut. In 1997, Perlman donated $1 million to the school, which responded by naming its library and technology conference center after him.
He built his first computer from a kit during high school in 1976 at Hall High School in West Hartford, where he graduated in 1979. He went on to earn a liberal arts degree from Columbia University in 1983 before heading out to California to seek out his place in the technology world.
After a stint working at Atari, in 1985 he joined Apple as a principal scientist where he developed the enabling technology behind QuickTime, Apple’s proprietary video codec.
Five years later, in 1990 he was part of the group that spun out of Apple to create General Magic, as Managing director for advanced products, where he worked on its system on a chip for the earliest personal digital assistants. There he met up with Andy Rubin who went on to found Android.
Rubin described Perlman in a Business Week interview in 2011 as being consumed by a drive to create breakthrough technology. “I think true visionaries push their employees really hard, ” says Rubin, a close friend of Perlman. “You have to be signed up for a 24 by 7 type of deal. Some people can do it and some can’t.”
Interestingly when 2003, Rubin had run out of money while pursuing some new cellphone software at his own startup Android. “Without flinching, Steve brought over $10, 000 in cash in an envelope, ” Rubin said in the same interview. Perlman declined to take any equity in the company, which would later be acquired by Google and become the basis of its smartphone software empire. “I think he would rather invest in his own ideas, ” Rubin says.
In 1996 Perlman founded WebTV, which he then succeeded in selling to Microsoft a year and a half later in 1997 for US$425 million. Renamed MSNTV Perlman became a divisional President within Microsoft responsible for MSNTV, until 1999 when he left to found his own incubator Reardon. There he developed the technology behind what was to become Onlive and, later still, Artemis itself
Another of Perlman’s Reardon start-ups developed the CGI facial manipulation technology used for a number of Hollywood movies, including the 2008 Oscar winning “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” starring Brad Pitt. In 2011 Perlman announced the establishment of Artemis Networks to develop his current cellular initiative.