Cell phone inventor dreams of human embeds

NEW YORK Thu Mar 27, 2008 9:50am EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Martin Cooper invented the cell phone 35 years ago, he envisioned a world with people so wedded to wireless connections that they would walk around with devices embedded in their bodies.

But while phones have come a long way since the former Motorola researcher made the first-ever wireless call from a busy New York street corner in April 1973, Cooper says the industry has fallen short of his expectations.

"Our dream was that someday nobody would talk on a wired telephone. Everybody would talk on a wireless phone," the 79-year-old electronic engineer told Reuters.

Cooper said he was so enthused after his first mobile call that he liked to joke that phone numbers would become so important that "when you were born you would get a phone number and if you didn't answer it you would die."

"The idea is that the phone number becomes part of you," said Cooper, who is also waiting for the day when he merely thinks about calling a particular person and the phone will automatically dial the number.

While the popularity of mobile phones has skyrocketed, with more than 3 billion people owning cell phones now compared with only 300,000 in 1984, Cooper said in telephone interviews from California and New York that he sees much more room for wireless in industries ranging from health care to power.

"Thirty-five years later we've finally got the idea that people want to be free to communicate while they're moving around but unfortunately we've just barely mastered that for voice," he said.

SCIENCE FICTION?

In about 15 to 20 years, he expects people to have embedded wireless devices in their bodies to help diagnose and cure illness. "Just think of what a world it would be if we could measure the characteristics of your body when you get sick and transmit those directly to a doctor or a computer," he said. "You could get diagnosed and cured instantly and wirelessly."

Embedded wireless devices could also help solve the problem of phone power consumption, which has come a long way in the last three decades but is still a cause of frustration as increasingly complex devices require more energy.

"Here you've got this wonderful power supply called the human body that's generating energy all the time," he said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have these devices built into you and powered by your body?"

Now chief executive of ArrayComm, a wireless software firm he started in 1992, Cooper concedes that there are obstacles in the way of his vision for wireless to be embedded in humans.

"It's not really the technology, it's the people. People are really conservative," said Cooper.

But if the idea of humans using their bodies to charge their phones sounds like the stuff of science fiction, Cooper points out that many people were similarly amazed at the sight of him talking on a wireless device at the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue on April 3, 1973.

He recalls that prototype device, which took three months to build, weighed almost 2 pounds (0.91 kilograms) and had a battery life of a mere 20 minutes.

The first call he made was to taunt his counterpart at Bell Labs, then owned by a predecessor to AT&T Inc.

While AT&T had built the first car phone in the 1940s, it took the company until 1978 to build a commercial cellular network. And another five years ensued before the first cell phone, nicknamed "the brick," was sold by Motorola.

Cooper acknowledges that cell phone calls are much more reliable nowadays as technology and network coverage improved. But he urged the U.S. wireless industry, which meets on April 1 in Las Vegas for an annual convention, to simplify phones now so complex that user manuals are heavier than the devices.

Today's cell phones already have everything from music and cameras to e-mail and Web surfing, though these features need to be much easier to use, he said.

"The right way to do it would be to have a camera with two buttons, one to take the picture, the other to transmit it wirelessly to wherever you want it to go," he said.

As for Motorola, his employer for 29 years, Cooper said he was "heartbroken" at the news on Wednesday it would break up.

To regain its falling market share, Cooper said, Motorola needs to be willing to make bold moves -- like when it put all its engineering resources into building the first cell phone.

"It was a really risky thing to do," said Cooper. "People thought I was crazy thinking about a phone you can just put in your pocket."

(Editing by Gary Hill)