Waltzing with technology

29 May 2003

The Research Institute for Networks and Communications Engineering (RINCE) was established as a national centre of excellence four years ago and its director, Patrick McNally, sings his staff’s praises in their mission to step in time to define new research directions in the area of advanced networks and communications engineering.

“We pride ourselves on being an institute, by that we mean a collective of research interests and we cover everything that impacts networks and communications engineering, which will be used to develop advanced devices of the future,” he says.

RINCE (pronounced ‘rink-eh’) is an innovative centre designed to be one of Ireland’s hubs of entrepreneurial energy and it is based in the School of Electronic Engineering at Dublin City University. It concentrates on multidisciplinary research in information and communications technologies (ICT) under a small number of over-arching themes: high-speed networking, mobility of users and applications and user interface.

The institute has over 75 staff, including five new postdoctoral fellowships, 32 additional research postgraduate students and 12 visiting academics. Funding and support come from a number of sources including Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, DCU, Sun Microsystems, ParthusCeva and LogicCMG.

“We have a number of roles in RINCE,” McNally explains. “Obviously developing basic and applied ICT research. [In the area of] Technology transfer, we have an aim to spin off our intellectual property and to see start-up companies emerge from our research. We also play a fundamental role in training. We are involved in DCU’s degree programmes from our bachelor of engineering programme right through to masters programmes, PhDs, post-doctorial training and indeed our members are involved in delivering world wide web-based courses for our taught masters in telecommunications engineering. That is in collaboration with the school of electronic engineering and indeed most of the members in RINCE are faculty members in the school of electronic engineering.”

As a visitor to the research institute, I am whisked off to various labs to peer over students’ shoulders at a succession of computer screens to witness the innovations in action. First up was the Broadband Switching and Systems Laboratory managed by Dr Martin Collier, who also famously devised the RINCE acronym.

This lab’s mission is to develop a theoretical understanding of broadband switched networks and their performance, and to convert this theory into practice, by designing broadband systems, says Collier.

“With current practices for deploying network software, it takes forever to roll out a new protocol. An open architecture gets around this by (typically) providing some kind of middleware without needing to rebuild everything, which only the hardware vendor can do,” he says.

Collier and his team of researchers advocate open architecture systems for doing this. “The idea is that the open software is self-deploying, so it only gets installed on those network nodes where it is required. This allows the network to support a richer set of functions than if new software was loaded by administrations, in which case half the code on a box would inevitably be unused junk,” he concludes.

Potentially this will allow network programming to be done by third parties in the same way that the PC allowed Microsoft to become leaders in computer software.

Next up was the visual media processing group lab, headed up by Dr Noel Murphy and Dr Noel O’Connor. The Centre for Digital Video Processing is based here, which is a cross-disciplinary research centre and a collaboration between the School of Computer Applications and the School of Electronic Engineering.

The centre now has 2,000 users across the campus attached to its video network — Físchlár. They can prerecord and play back television programmes on their PCs, selecting specific scenes or choosing to freeze frames.

While it makes viewing very handy for its users, it has a much more serious role, explains Murphy: “Físchlár serves as a permanent test bed for research into video signal processing and transmission.”

Lecturer Dr Noel O’Connor explains some of the research projects. “This lab produces the next generation of tools that eventually will be plugged into Físchlár.” In one demo, a computer is set the task of analysing exactly where ‘the exciting parts’ of a sports match are using clues such as the rise in crowd noise. “Eventually, this could produce a five-minute summary of the match and send it to a mobile or PDA [personal digital assistant].”

The centre is working to enable these video applications to be accessible by a handheld device such as an iPaq PDA. Indeed, making video mobile is the central interest of a commercial spin-off of the centre, a company called Aliope.

“Aliope takes some of the centre’s work and brings it to market,” Murphy, one of the founders, explains. It plans to re-engineer digital video technology developed at DCU’s Centre for Digital Video Processing to enable it to run over mobile telecommunications networks.

In the radio and optical communications group lab, I witnessed next-generation broadband communication systems in action. Dr Pascal Landais, a lecturer at the centre, explains: “With the increasing demand for broadband services, it is expected that hybrid fibre/radio systems may be employed to provide high capacity access networks for both mobile and fixed users. 3G will operate around the 2.4GHz band, while 4G systems may operate in the 5.8GHz band or beyond. To make these future generation systems commercially viable, it is important to keep costs as low as possible. We are researching this and the various technologies this entails.”

RINCE is bringing practical reality to the concepts of the information age and, if the various research projects come to commercial fruition, the centre could be the birthplace of a new wave of indigenous expertise.

By Lisa Deeney

Pictured from left, a student watches Dr Noel Murphy and Dr Noel O’Connor in their lab at DCU