Bell opens innovation centre for wireless technologies

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The opening of a product development centre will completely change the way Bell Canada employees develop next-generation wireless products and services, executives said Thursday.

The carrier welcomed Nortel,

Samsung and a host of other partners and customers to its campus for the official opening of the Wireless Innovation Centre. Executives described the facility as a 5,000-sq. ft. controlled customer simulation environment, where cell phones, handheld devices and mobile applications will be conceived and eventually showcased. Bell has opened three other centres in the past year — devoted to specific areas like optical networks — in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Visitors swarmed the area immediately outside the wireless centre, forming a lineup for tours which Bell Mobility president Michael Neuman likened to “”a nightclub on its opening night.”” Once inside, they were escorted through a collection of rooms that were part laboratory, part boardroom.

The presentation room, for example, includes a theatre-style seating area where images can be viewed on a space about the width of a movie screen but not quite as high. Behind its surface are built-in glass cases where new products, like a handset, for example, can be suddenly illuminated. There are windows in this room, but at the touch of a button the glass is instantly frosted to give the occupants more privacy.

Brainstorming is encouraged by floor-to-ceiling whiteboards in another part of the centre, while a “”smartboard”” allows users to write in marker on a flat-screen monitor’s surface and save the files into text documents or e-mail.

On the other side of the presentation area is a central workspace with flat-screen monitors and stations where product development work takes place. Surrounding this area are “”breakout rooms”” which can be occupied by vendors who want to work more closely with Bell on wireless projects. Every part of the centre is Wi-Fi enabled.

Outside the presentation room is a conveyor belt that holds Bell’s latest wireless products on transparent pedestals, which rotates like a carousel behind a large pane of glass.

“”Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what the latest and greatest products are,”” said Bell associate director of business development Andy Wright. “”This gives them a tangible look-see.””

Eugene Roman, Bell’s group president of systems and technology, likened the centre to an incubator, a concept he said he learned to value at Bell Northern Research. The centre will be a place for testing, systems integration and will provide a “”neutral zone”” where products can be taken from idea to full production, he said.

“”We really don’t care what part of the company (product teams) come from,”” he told an audience of employees and visitors. “”You can’t predict the future, but this will offer a degree of line of site into the future.””

Bell took the opportunity to demonstrate a number of its most recent location-based services, including Java MapMe, which can identify a cell phone user’s location within a map and allow them to scroll onto various nearby sites and get more detailed information about them. A telematics service, meanwhile, includes a Web application and a mounted telepod which can give fleet managers odometer readings and information on a truck’s most recent 50 stops, something employees dubbed a GPS “”breadcrumb trail.””

Philippe Jetté, Bell’s director of wireless technology planning, said it will take “”disciplined project management”” to make sure rooms within the centre are assigned appropriately. Team leaders will have to ensure both that they have the right people from areas like marketing and engineering, as well as the right network equipment. There is hope within Bell that the centre could significantly accelerate product development cycles. That cycle depends on the nature of the project, he added.

“”In the lower network layers, (product development) could be three years long,”” he said. “”In applications like gaming, it might only be three months.””

Roman said the centre is a considerable step up from Bell’s wireltess roots. In 1986, he said, mobile products were tested in a 200-sq. ft. lab.

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