explosive popularity of wireless devices—from WiFi laptops to Bluetooth
headsets to ZigBee sensor nodes—is increasingly clogging the airwaves,
resulting in dropped calls, wasted bandwidth and botched connections.
New software being developed at the University of Michigan works like a
stoplight to control the traffic and dramatically reduce interference.
The software, GapSense, lets these devices that can't normally talk to
one another exchange simple stop and warning messages so their
communications collide less often. GapSense creates a common language of
energy pulses and gaps. The length of the gaps conveys the stop or
warning message. Devices could send them at the start of a
communication, or in between information packets to let other gadgets in
the vicinity know about their plans.
"All these devices are supposed to perform their designated functions
but they're using the same highway and fighting for space," said Kang
Shin, the Kevin and Nancy O'Connor Professor of Computer Science at U-M.
"Since they don't have a direct means of communicating with each other
because they use different protocols, we thought, 'How can we coordinate
them so that each can perform their functions while minimizing
interference with the others?'"
The researchers tested GapSense and found that it could reduce
interference by more than 88 percent on some networks with diverse
devices. Shin and Xinyu Zhang, a former doctoral student in electrical
engineering and computer science, will present the work April 18 at the
IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications in Turin,
To get a sense of how many wireless devices exist today, in 2013, CTIA,
the Wireless Association counted more than 321 million WiFi-enabled cell
phones, laptops and tablets in the United States. That's more than one
device per person, and it's just the items that use WiFi, the protocol
that transmits big chunks of data over relatively long distances.
Bluetooth and ZigBee use the same wireless spectrum as WiFi, but they
all speak different languages. Bluetooth, shorter range and less
powerful, can connect headsets and keyboards to phones and computers,
for example. ZigBee, the lowest powered of the group, links networks of
small radios to automate home and building systems such as lighting,
security alarms and thermostats. It's also found in hospitals, where it
gathers medical data from patients.
All these devices are already equipped with the standard "carrier sense
multiple access," or CSMA, protocol that programs them to listen for
radio silence before they send their own transmissions. But often it
ZigBee takes 16 times longer than WiFi to gear up from its idle state to
transmit information, so sometimes it might sound to WiFi that the coast
is clear when a ZigBee packet is on its way out.
"The little guy might be talking, but big guy cannot hear it," Shin
said. "So the little guy's communication will be destroyed."
That's just one of several potential problems GapSense can help remedy.
The researchers tested the software in a simulated office environment.
With moderate WiFi traffic, they detected a 45 percent collision rate
between ZigBee and WiFi, and GapSense reduced that to 8 percent.
The software could also address the so-called "hidden terminal" problem.
Newer WiFi standards allow for faster data rates on wider bandwidths
than the standard 20 megahertz, but devices on different bandwidths
can't hear one another's communications to avoid talking over them.
GapSense could enable these devices on different standards to talk in
turn. At moderate WiFi traffic, the researchers detected around 40
percent collision rate between wider- and narrower-bandwidth devices and
GapSense reduced it to virtually zero.
could also reduce energy consumption of WiFi devices by 44 percent. It
would accomplish this by allowing the WiFi receiver to operate at low
clock rates. With the software, the faster-clocked WiFi transmitter
could send a wake-up message to the slower-clocked receiver in time for
it to synch and catch an information packet.
"The impact of GapSense is huge in my opinion," Shin said. "It could be
the Tower of Babel for the increasingly diversified world of wireless
The paper is titled "Gap Sense: Lightweight Coordination of
Heterogeneous Wireless Devices." The work is funded by the National
Science Foundation. The university is pursuing patent protection for the
intellectual property and is seeking commercialization partners to help
bring the technology to market.