The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- November 18, 1996
By BART ZIEGLER Staff Reporter
LAS VEGAS -- It sounds a bit far-fetched, but an International Business Machines Corp. researcher has devised a way to transmit information via a tiny pocket computer and current running through your body.
Using the setup, a person could send an electronic business card merely by shaking hands with someone similarly equipped -- the name, address and other data would be zapped from hand to hand, then to the other person's pocket computer. The technology also could replace phone cards, allowing your hand to transmit the calling-card number to the phone system when you touch the receiver of a public phone.
The scheme devised by Tom Zimmerman may sound a bit crazy, but the researcher has a track record in popularizing wild ideas: His "data glove" became a hit for Mattel Inc., as a way to manipulate Nintendo games by moving one's hand in the air while wearing a special glove.
"Anything you touch you could be telling it electronically who you are," says Mr. Zimmerman of the IBM system, which stemmed from early work he did with others at the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before he joined IBM. He envisions the system replacing the jumble of credit cards, identification cards, keys and other paraphernalia in people's pockets.
IBM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is so enthusiastic that he has been trotting out the researcher before closed-door gatherings of CEOs to demonstrate the electronic-handshake trick. Mr. Zimmerman will reprise the role in public for the first time at this week's giant Comdex computer trade show here.
In a demonstration, Mr. Zimmerman showed how the concept works. He held a device about the size of a pack of cards, and this reporter placed a slightly smaller device under one foot-this device in its early form needs to make contact with the ground to ensure the weak electric current it generates flows in the right direction. Then, when Mr. Zimmerman and the reporter shook hands, Mr. Zimmerman's business-card information was transferred from the device under the reporter's foot to the box Mr. Zimmerman was holding. Then via a conventional wire, the information was sent from the box to a laptop computer, where it could be viewed.
The system, which Mr. Zimmerman claims will be inexpensive, takes advantage of the body's ability to transmit electricity. He says the current his system uses from a battery is one-thousandth as strong as the current created when a balloon is rubbed against a sweater to make it stick on the wall. The system sends signals using a portion of the AM band below the frequency used by radio transmissions, and transmits data about as fast as a 2400-baud modem.
Among other uses, Mr. Zimmerman says his setup could create a "personal area network" over one's body to link the various electronic devices a person carries. For instance, it could allow a pager attached to one's belt to transmit a phone number it receives to a cellular phone carried in a pocket. The researcher even imagines a version of the small computers that could be built into shoes, with the electricity to power them being generated by a person's steps.
So far, though, it's all just a novel concept. Mr. Zimmerman filed a patent application for the technology only last week, and IBM hasn't decided whether it will commercialize it. But Mr. Zimmerman adds that "I probably wouldn't be working as hard on it and IBM probably wouldn't have filed a patent on it if it didn't think it could be a product."Copyright © 1996 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.