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The Invention of WiFi

Being exposed to ambitious projects and taking an active stance in pursuing big ideas are key factors in building innovation and making it successful. This is one example of the many insightful thoughts Dr John O'Sullivan presented at the lecture held by the Centre of Transformative Innovation and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering at Swinburne University on Wednesday 30th May.

Dr O’Sullivan is one of Australia’s science and innovation heroes. His achievements, along with colleagues from the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), received many awards including the IEEE Masura Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award in 2017 (with David Skellern), the European Inventor Award (International) in 2012, and not to mention the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2009.

Indeed, the discovery and development of his findings have enabled citizens around the world to use a device that is now an integral part of our daily life: Wi-Fi. When you use a Wi-Fi network, be it at home, in the office or at the coffee shop, you are using patented technology pioneered from the work of Dr O’Sullivan and his team from the CSIRO. This invention came from the extensive research the team took into radio astronomy or the study of celestial objects from radio frequencies. As explained by Dr O’Sullivan, radio signals are seen to distort computer networks and communication systems through the phenomenon known as multipath interference. This interference occurs when radio waves bounce off indoor surfaces, causing an echo that distorts the signal. Through ongoing research, they were able to overcome this interference by building a chip that reduced the echo and significantly improved the signal quality of Wi-Fi.

During the lecture, Dr O’Sullivan also provided a number of insightful comments about the challenges involved with commercialising the product as famously experienced by the famous Wi-Fi litigation case. Although this is a very important case to know and has been the subject of many reports, it is worth reflecting on one aspect of the Wi-Fi story that is not as often recognised. Dr O’Sullivan emphasised a significant, unappreciated factor that contributed to this success story: the team of people who worked together. The group involved individuals with different backgrounds, experience and skills (be it mathematicians, physicists, engineers, business developers) all collaborating to work together.

Certainly, the biggest take away was the importance of building a team with breadth and depth. Dr O’Sullivan emphasised this through the work of all of his team members, as it is the skills of them all collectively, that enabled the idea to lead to such success and give us the internet access that we all are addicted to today.

written by Mihai Avram

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