User System Ergonomics Research
Pan Fact Sheet


Hi-Tech, Hi-Touch

Personal Area Networks (PAN):
A Technology Demonstration by IBM Research
November 18-19, 1996

Technology Description

Scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Center (San Jose, CA) are perfecting a new Personal Area Network technology that uses the natural electrical conductivity of the human body to transmit electronic data.

Using a small prototype transmitter (roughly the size of a deck of cards) embedded with a microchip, and a slightly larger receiving device, the researchers can transmit a pre-programmed electronic business card between two people via a simple handshake. What’s more, the prototype allows data to be transmitted from sender to receiver through up to four touching bodies.

PAN technology is being demonstrated publicly for the first time at the Comdex computer industry trade show in Las Vegas.

How PAN works

The natural salinity of the human body makes it an excellent conductor of electrical current. PAN technology takes advantage of this conductivity by creating an external electric field that passes an incredibly tiny current through the body, over which data is carried.

The current used is one-billionth of an amp (one nanoamp), which is lower than the natural currents already in the body. In fact, the electrical field created by running a comb through hair is more than 1,000 times greater than that being used by PAN technology.

The speed at which the data is transmitted is equivalent to a 2400-baud modem. Theoretically, 400,000 bits per second could be communicated using this method.

Potential applications

IBM researchers envision PAN technology initially being applied in three ways:

1) To pass simple data between electronic devices carried by two human beings, such as an electronic business card exchanged during a handshake.

2) To exchange information between personal information and communications devices carried by an individual, including cellular phones, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and smart cards. For example, upon receiving a page, the number could be automatically uploaded to the cellular phone, requiring the user to simply hit the “send” button. This automation increases accuracy and safety, especially in driving situations.

3) To automate and secure consumer business transactions. Among the many examples:

Why Use The Body To Transmit Data?

Sharing information increases the usefulness of personal information devices and provides users with features not possible with independent or isolated devices. However, finding a way to do this effectively, securely and cost-efficiently presented a challenge, at least until PAN was developed.

That’s because other likely approaches are not practical for everyday use. For example, wiring all these devices together would be cumbersome and constrictive to the user. Infra-red communications of information, used on TV remote controls, requires direct lines of sight to be effective. Radio frequencies (such as those used with automated car locks) could jam or interfere with each other, or be imprecise in crowded situations.

Previous Work In This Area

PAN grew out of work between Professor Mike Hawley’s Personal Information Architecture Group and Professor Neil Gershenfeld’s Physics and Media Group, both located at the MIT Media Laboratory. Initial research was funded by the IBM Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and the Festo Didactic Corporation.

Thomas Zimmerman (now at the IBM Research - Almaden - User System Ergonomics Research), working closely with Gershenfeld, realized that data could be sent through the body by modulating the electric field used in position measurement experiments. This technique was developed by Zimmerman in part while MIT was working with the magicians Penn and Teller to refine an illusion in which Penn Jillette “played” musical instruments without touching them.


The prototype technology being demonstrated by IBM at Comdex is still in the research stages and is being refined before it will be applied to any future products and services.

An IBM Systems Journal article on Personal Area Network technology is available, the article is titled: "Personal Area Networks: Near-field intrabody communication" by Thomas Zimmerman. Vol. 35, No. 3&4, 1996 - MIT Media Lab

For additional information please contact Thomas Zimmerman at

Last updated: Friday, 22-Nov-96 10:23:00 PST

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