Nautilus

Lights, Camera, Acrimony!

A crowd of thousands had gathered at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, drawn by the prospect of witnessing a telecommunications revolution. In the warm summer evening of June 24, 2011 they watched a video, projected onto the wall of the medieval Doge’s Palace, explaining a new technology that promised to multiply the volume of data carried by radio waves at a stroke.

Some 442 meters across the lagoon, a pair of unusual antennas had been mounted on the lighthouse on St George’s Island. At the flick of a switch, a signal leapt from the antennas, accompanied by a rifle shot—the same signal used by Guglielmo Marconi to confirm the first radio transmission in 1895. An instant later, the message reached its destination and was flashed onto the palace’s gothic facade. “Segnale Ricevuto,” it read. “Signal received.”

The crowd, already whipped up by a light show and an increasingly hysterical commentator, broke into wild applause.

Signal ReceivedWith echoes of Marconi, Tamburini and Thidé light up the wall of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. They project the words “Segnale Ricevuto” when two radio waves, one of which was twisted, were transmitted across 442 meters and received by two separate channels.Simonetta Soglio

Fabrizio Tamburini and Bo Thidé, the scientists who orchestrated the Venice demonstration, triumphantly wrote up their results. The transmission, they explained, used two radio beams, one of which had been carved into a helix shape. Even though the beams had the same wavelength, the twist meant that receivers could distinguish between them—as if the beams were separate data channels. In principle, the scientists said, many more beams could be added, each with different degrees of twist in the helix, to provide even more channels. Tamburini was soon being styled by the Italian media as “il nuovo Marconi.”

More data channels are exactly what the telecommunication industry desperately needs. With the growing burden of images, movies, and online gaming, mobile devices have become voracious consumers of bandwidth. Telecom company Cisco predicts that by 2018, global traffic will reach 2.7 gigabytes per smartphone per month, totaling 15.9 exabytes (15.9 x 1018 bytes), all carried over finite radio spectra and straining wireless networks.

The Venice experiment promised a solution, potentially multiplying the data capacity of a single frequency at a stroke. But rather than global acclaim, their paper was met with skepticism—even outrage

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