Tapping The `Wet Wire' Within

MORE THAN A FEW OF THE thousands of computer executives at last week's Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas probably shared the experience of spotting a familiar face, shaking hands, and then struggling to recall the name.

Anticipating such awkward moments, IBM was on hand to demonstrate its new Personal Area Network, or PAN. The prototype consists of a transmitter the size of a fat credit card and a slightly larger receiver. When two people with PANs shake hands, the physical contact completes an electric circuit. The transmitters then send enough data to create an electronic calling card on a computer screen. The current is only a billionth of an ampere--much less than a small static-electric shock. But it's enough to carry a stream of digital bits.

The new networks are the brainchild of Thomas Zimmerman, a researcher at Big Blue's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at the Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They figure that such PAN systems could help personal electronic devices communicate with each other. Using the bearer's body as a "wet wire," a PAN would let your pocket pager send a caller's phone number to a cell phone in your other pocket. Then you could hit one button to dial the number.

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