Originally posted Jun 7, 2016
Is there an unlimited need for speed, or are we perfecting buggy whips?
Contrary to some stereotypes, engineers—especially the most effective ones—are both intuitive and creative. The benefits and tradeoffs of intuition are significant, and that’s why I’ve written here about its limits and ways it might be enhanced. As for creativity, I don’t think I understand it very well at all, and would welcome any perspective that will improve my own.
Recently, on the same day, I ran across two articles that, together, made me think about the role of imagination in engineering. It is clearly another vital talent to develop, and maybe I can learn a little about this element of creativity in the bargain.
The first was Lou Frenzel’s piece in Electronic Design, wondering about the practical limits of data bandwidth, along with its potential uses. The other was the announcement by Facebook and Microsoft of an upcoming 160 Tbit/s transatlantic cable link called MAREA that will reach from Spain to Virginia. I had to blink and read the figure again: the units really are terabits per second.
That figure made me dredge up past skepticism about an announcement, some years back, of 40 Gbit optical links. I remember wondering what applications—even in aggregate—could possibly consume such vast capacity, especially because many such links were in the works. I also wondered just how much higher things could go, scratching my head in the same way Lou did. Now I find myself reading about a cable that will carry 4,000 times more information than the 40 Gbit one, and concluding that I was suffering from afailure of imagination.
Imagination is anything but a mystical concept, and has real technical and business consequences. One of the most famous examples is the 1967 fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft, where the unforeseen effects of a high-pressure oxygen environment during a ground test turned a small fire into a catastrophe. In congressional hearings about the accident, astronaut Frank Borman—by many accounts the most blunt and plain-spoken engineer around—spoke of the fatal fire’s ultimate cause as a failure of imagination.
Frank Borman, right, the astronaut representative on the Apollo 1 review board, reframed the cause of the Apollo 1 tragedy as essentially a failure of imagination. One clear risk was eliminated because the rocket wasn’t fueled, and perhaps that blinded NASA to the certainly fatal consequences of fire plus high-pressure oxygen in an enclosed space. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)
In RF engineering, the hazards we face are much more benign, but are still significant for our work and our careers. We may miss a better way to solve a problem, fail to anticipate a competitor’s move, or underestimate the opportunity for—or the demands on—a new application.
That’s certainly what happened when I tried to imagine how large numbers of 40 Gbit links could ever be occupied. I thought about exchanging big data files, transmitting lots of live video—even the HD that was then on its way—and a considerable expansion of mobile services. However, I completely failed to imagine things like video streaming from smartphones en masse, ubiquitous cloud computing, an Internet of umpteen things, and virtual reality (VR).
VR stands out as an example of multi-faceted innovation that was hardly a blip on the horizon a few years ago—but it now promises to be a huge consumer of both downlink and uplink bandwidth. It demands fast, high-resolution video and typically low latency, and the benefits are compelling. As one example, it converts 3D video from a passively consumed product to an immersive experience with lots of instructional and entertainment applications. Just one among many future bandwidth drivers, I’m sure.
It’s been observed that data bandwidth for wireless links is often about one generation behind that of common wired ones. Both have been growing rapidly, and though I can’t imagine exactly what the demand drivers will be, I agree with Lou that we won’t reach limits soon, and there will continue to be plenty of interesting challenges.
For RF engineers it will mean solving the countless problems that stand between lofty wireless (and wired) standards and the practical, affordable products that will make them reality.
Note: This post has been edited to correct a bits/bytes error.