A new bandwidth breakthrough

Polymer integrated circuits promise gigabit Internet bandwidth everywhere. And the first killer app will be videoconferencing

We all realize that technology can change human behavior. If you don't quite know what I mean, just ask television network executives who have seen the erosion of their audience and ad dollars as more and more people log on to the Web for information and entertainment.

In the print world, my old Sunday morning ritual of looking through the newspaper classifieds for interesting stuff for sale is now a Craigslist pursuit I do at night, after work.

So what do you think will happen when technology delivers 1Gbps Ethernet bandwidth over the Internet?

I spoke with Hal Bennett, CEO of Third-Order Nanotechnology, which has patented technology to deliver that kind of performance using plastic, a.k.a. polymer, integrated circuits that convert an electronic signal to light and then switch that light on and off.

"For 30 years, people have been dreaming of building photonic integrated circuits out of polymers. Not only will they achieve integration, but they would achieve low cost. After 30 years of trying, we are on the verge of demonstrating the recipe," Bennett told me.

With a connection that gives a user a thousand times the performance of DSL, Bennett believes the killer application will be videoconferencing.

If you're scratching your head and thinking to yourself, "Not that old chestnut, again," hear Bennett out.

I know I for one have read, written, and heard about the Next Big Technology for videoconferencing time and again. And like many others, I've said, Who cares? Why is videoconferencing so important?

Well, Bennett believes the reason most people feel that way is because the videoconferencing experience has thus far been unsatisfactory, delivering choppy, unfocused talking heads with practically expressionless faces.

Bennett says gigabit Internet throughput will change all that. Not only will you be able to videoconference with 100 people, but you will be able to see and process the "micro-expressions" that run across each face at a thirtieth of a second.

Why is that important?

According to psychologist Paul Ekman, who developed the theory of micro-expressions, nuanced expressions lay the groundwork for the bulk of communication among people. Our brains interpret each of these little expressions, even though our conscious mind may not even see them.

And so, perhaps the real reason videoconferencing leaves us unsatisfied is that we can't really communicate on the subconscious level we need to in order to truly understand one another.

At gigabit speeds, the technology can update the view during a teleconference at 30 to 60 frames per second at a megapixel per frame. With, say, six people in a videoconference, that's a lot of bandwidth.

Finally, Bennett believes, "Humans were built for small groups."

Text, Bennett explains, enabled remote-control, top-down centralization. Thanks to the Internet and ever higher bandwidth, this is breaking down. The phenomenon we are witnessing was first suggested by Marshall McLuhan back in the '60s. McLuhan predicted that we are coming full circle back into small group activities that are distributed over the planet -- a global village, so to speak.

If Bennett is right, in the future, thanks to truly high-speed connectivity, we will be totally satisfied with the videoconference experience. And, because our level of satisfaction is taking place at a subconscious level, we won't even know why.

Viva technology and the human mind.