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Monday, December 08, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Wi-Fi's shape-shifting at EMP: Building design poses challenges

By Nancy Gohring
Special to The Seattle Times

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If there's one place where Wi-Fi makes sense, it may be at Seattle's cutting-edge Experience Music Project museum.

We're about to find out if the structure and its unusual curved ceilings and flowing floor plan is a good fit for this form of wireless technology.

Faced with the challenge presented by the building's one-of-a-kind design, workers at Paul Allen's EMP are installing an extensive advanced wireless network, with plans to have the system in place by the end of January.

For now, Rene Lopez, manager of information-technology operations at EMP, can think only about the wide array of applications that can run over the wireless network:

• Visitors could watch and listen to programs streamed to handheld devices over the wireless network as they browsed through exhibits.

• Wait staff in the restaurant could submit orders from the table to the kitchen with a small wireless gadget, while customers could check e-mail from their laptops.

• From anywhere in the museum, technicians could use Pocket PCs to dim and raise the lights in the Sky Church during a concert.

• Executives from corporations that rent out portions of the museum for events could stroll around talking on cordless phones that transmit their conversations over the wireless network.

As gee-whiz as these possibilities may sound, the building's contours and odd spaces present a daunting challenge to deploy a wireless system. The unusual shape means installers have to map out carefully how they expect the radio signals Wi-Fi uses to travel.

"Our building doesn't have a single right corner," Lopez said.

When he started looking for equipment that could handle the project, Lopez settled on Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze Networks.

Trapeze's solution includes software that helps customers determine where to place access points in order to ensure coverage throughout a building. Users download existing files of the building's structure to the software, which then indicates on the architectural drawings where each access point should be located.

If the software places an access point in a spot that might not make sense physically, the user can drag the icon representing that point to a more suitable location on the map. The picture of the resulting coverage area readjusts itself.

Without that tool, plotting out the network would be extremely difficult and time-consuming for EMP. "Typically you can model an area and apply it to another area, but here you can't make the common assumptions," said Michelle McLean, director of product marketing at Trapeze.

In a typical building, without the Trapeze software, technicians examine the structure, determine where to locate the access points for the best coverage and then use that same design in similar areas throughout a building. At EMP, however, no two areas are the same.

The structure of EMP also presents challenges in running Ethernet wire, which must connect to each access point. Unlike regular office buildings, technicians at EMP can't randomly drill through walls or string cable over the ceilings of rooms. EMP is built entirely of steel and aluminum.

"The building essentially has a skin, so they can get beneath it," said Lopez. "But there's no one way; that's what adds complexity."

Lopez has also paid attention to what the access points would look like attached to the building's walls. "Aesthetics is of the highest importance," he said.

Other products had flashing lights and were larger. "The Trapeze design, they look like fire detectors so people don't notice them," Lopez said. He expects to hang at least 60 access points to provide coverage over the entire structure.

Because employees and the public will both use the same network, Lopez required stringent security that wouldn't allow a visitor, for example, to access an application that controls lights in the theater.

With the Trapeze equipment, visitors log on to the network and the network automatically will recognize them as visitors and allow them to access only the Internet or other applications that EMP may authorize.

Initially, the network will be available for customers who rent out portions of the museum to use for Internet access. Soon after, it's expected to be offered to visitors to the restaurant and lounge, possibly for a fee.

Eventually, the existing handheld exhibit guides that museum visitors use will need to be replaced and Lopez has already investigated new products that use Wi-Fi to stream audio and video to such devices.

Other applications the museum staff may use include a mobile ticketing station. As exhibits move, ticketing stations, based on standard PCs, move too. Currently, the position of the stations is limited to nearby phone jacks that connect them to the Internet. With Wi-Fi, the stations can go anywhere.

Lopez thinks offering Wi-Fi in the lounge will be a draw for customers.

"We get a lot of the executive crowd there so if they can come in and have a martini and read e-mail, I would think it'd be more interesting to some of our customers," he said.

Nancy Gohring, a Seattle freelancer, writes frequently about wireless and telecommunications issues.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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