Music traveling at the speed of light

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The mission: create a device that can transmit music from an iPod, through a laser, from 20 feet away. The team: a class of creative BYU electrical engineering majors, willing to rise to the challenge.

The device, known as a Free Space Optical Transmission Device, sends the information in a laser through bright and dim patterns, representing ones and zeros.  It consists of a transmitter that is plugged into the iPod, and a receiver which picks up the pattern from the laser, converts it to an audio signal and plays out of the connected speakers.

Professor Aaron Hawkins provided the specifications that the laser must be able to send music over a span of 20 feet, must have a rechargeable battery that lasts for two hours and must include an indicator that shows when the battery is low.

While the technology of transmitting data through a laser is not necessarily new, Hawkins stretches his students by adapting the specifications each semester to build upon the last class’ improvements, so students have the experience of going above and beyond what others did in past semesters.

The team that accomplishes the goal with the most bells and whistles wins five highly coveted extra credit points to their overall grade. The winners for this year’s design are Matt Seamons, Jana Sardoni, Greg Loveland and Raymond Barrier.

Aside from the recognition and extra credit, Loveland, a senior from Millington, Mich., said his favorite part was watching the excitement on everybody’s faces when it actually worked.

“We just spent a lot of time working on it,” Loveland said. “We would get one working and then it would stop, and then get another one working and it would stop — nothing was consistent.”

After many setbacks, the students finally managed to create a working system just in time — the night before the project was due.

“Watching my co-team react to the fact that we had a really well working system was, I think, my highlight,” Loveland said.

Despite the competitive nature of the course, students from all teams collaborated in the project.

“We wanted everybody to get a good grade, so we wanted everybody to have a working system,” Loveland said. “We just wanted ours to look better and do more stuff.”

Seamons, a senior from Centerville, was the appointed team leader.

“I believe that this kind of technology will be coming out at a consumer level, using lasers or some kind of directional or point-to-point communication,” Seamons said.

Seamons believes this technology can be a supplement to current wireless technology that is inherently limited in transferring data.

“That’s a lot of data being sent wirelessly, the problem with that is that it’s going to fill up,” Seamons said. “This is not limitless, so I believe that stuff like this is going to have to come out.”

The technology also makes the transfer of data more secure.  Since the message is sent through light, intercepting the message is much more difficult to accomplish without tipping off the receiver of the message.

Raymond Barrier, a senior from San Saba, Texas, said a feasible real world application for the device would be setting up a communication system for businesses with several buildings that want to transmit information more securely than a wireless network.

While the product itself presents exciting possibilities for the future, the emphasis for Hawkins’ class is to give the students the experience of creating something new according to the needs of the client.

“Being able to transmit stuff through light like this is awesome,” Seamons said. “It’s a lot of fun for us, because we get to see the results literally.”

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