Kaveh Pahlavan: Helping Skyhook Database Receive over a Billion Hits per day

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Kaveh Pahlavan.

Kaveh Pahlavan, is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Center for Wireless Information Network Studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA. He is also the chief technical advisor of Skyhook Wireless, Boston, MA, since its inception in 2005. From 1995–2007 he had a long and productive cooperation with the University of Oulu and Nokia in Finland. He is renowned for his pioneering research in Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi localization. His current area of research is wireless access and localization for body area networks with focus on localization of wireless video capsule endoscope inside the gastro intestine. He has contributed to numerous seminal papers and key patents related to Wi-Fi and indoor geo-location. He is the authors of several pioneering books translated and taught around the world in several languages. He is the founding editor in chief of the International Journal on Wireless Information Networks, which was established in 1994 as the first journal in wireless networks. He has founded, chaired and organized a number of pioneering international events in wireless access and localization, which includes the first IEEE Workshop in Wireless Local Area Networking (1991), and the IEEE International Symposium on Personal, Indoor and Mobile Radio Communication (PIMRC), co-founded in 1991 as the first and most cited annual international scientific event on wireless networking. For his pioneering entrepreneurship activities in the growth of wireless networking industry, he has been selected as a member of the Committee on Evolution of Untethered Communication, US National Research Council (1997), and has leaded the US team for the review of the Finnish National R&D Programs in 2000 and 2003. For his contributions in research and scholarship he was the Westin Hadden Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at WPI (1993–1996), was elected as a fellow of the IEEE (1996), became the first non-Finn fellow of the Nokia (1999), received the first Fulbright-Nokia fellowship (2000) and received WPI board of trustee’s award for Outstanding Research and Creative Scholarship (2011).

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born on March 16, 1951, in Tehran. My father was a military officer, a lawyer, and a scholar who was very keen on literature. Our living room was a library full of books and I remember him reading or writing most of the time. However, he would also seize every opportunity to have fun! My mother was well-versed in Persian classic poetry and my second oldest brother was a first-class athlete and a member of the Iranian National Volleyball Team. The diversity of talents of these three guided me into a diversified and colorful life. In 1969, I passed the very competitive national college entrance exam of Iran to enter the most selective department of that time, the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Tehran. During my college days, I became a member of the prestigious University of Tehran volleyball team and we won two college championships (1971 and 1972) and came in second in 1973. In 1973, sponsored by the University of Tehran, I had the first foreign trip of my life to Moscow to participate in the College Student’s Olympics. In the same year I married my life partner, Farzaneh Nowtash, and currently we have a daughter and son and two grandchildren. In parallel with my engineering education and athletic experiences in college days, I also studied modern Persian poetry and the evolution of western philosophy on my own. Like my father, I have tried to never lose an opportunity to celebrate life and I feel lucky that I could continue my colorful lifestyle until now! In addition to my professional growth, I have also won numerous trophies in volleyball (79–89), in tennis (95–05) and more recently in Argentine Tango dancing with my wife (2011-). I have always admired classic Persian music and poetry and I have studied them as a tool to learn mystic values embedded in Sufism as the eastern philosophy of life. In 2011, I translated Behrooz Gharibpour’s musical masterpiece, “Puppet Opera of Rumi” into English and posted the video with subtitles on YouTube.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I can never differentiate career from life; I see career as an important part of life. I think having an introvert personality, being keen on solving challenging problems, persistence, and a very high level of energy were my assets for creativity and productivity in research and scholarship as well as in all other aspects of life. I enjoy competition, I select a certain “thing” that I feel I am good at, then I work hard day and night for perfection in that “thing.” This can be a challenging research problem, tedious writing of a book, the patient study of a philosophical concept or history of an era, or an athletic experience or a game like chess. This way, I have gained knowledge in diverse subjects in my profession and in life. Since I also enjoy sharing my knowledge through teaching, I became an athletics coach and a dedicated teacher.

Your research interests cover “body area networking,” indoor geo-location, WiFi localization, wireless data networking, and multi-robot localization. Can you share some highlights of your work in these areas?

Radio signals in indoor areas bounce over different objects, causing numerous multi-path arrivals at the receivers. Interference among multi-path arrivals restricts the achievable data rate for wireless communication and substantially reduces the precision of indoor geo-location systems. My research has been on empirical modeling of the mult-ipath arrivals for different indoor wireless access and localization application scenarios and using these models to find communication and signal processing techniques to mitigate the effects of multi-path. During 1983–1995 my research was focused on Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN), commercially known as Wi-Fi. This work began with a consulting project at GTE laboratories in 1983 and turned to academic research for me when I received the NSF’s first research grant in this area in 1987. Then, I became engaged with a few pioneering startup companies for design of WLAN products and worked on the IEEE 802.11 WLAN standard.

From 1995–2009, the focus of my research was on indoor geo-location and that was initiated by a DARPA project and involvement with a few pioneering startup companies in that field. At that time, GPS was established as the first popular RF navigation system for military and commercial applications, but it did not work indoors. In the mid-1990’s, both DARPA and venture capitalists were keen on indoor geo-location technology and I was one of the first who engaged in research and development in that field. The highlight of my contributions in this industry was in my work as the chief technical advisor of Skyhook wireless, the company which sold Wi-Fi localization to Steve Jobs for adoption in the first iPhone in 2007.

Since 2009, I have been working on challenges on localization of micro-robots inside the human body for wireless video capsule endoscopy (WVCE), which was initially sponsored by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The WVCE is a micro-robot taking 55,000 pictures from inside of the Gastro Intestine (GI) tract of the human being to identify bleeding and tumors, but when we see the pictures of abnormalities we cannot find the exact location in the GI tract that the picture was taken. My research in this area was on modeling the radio propagation inside the liquid-like non-homogeneous human body and to use that for finding methods for localizing the micro-robot from the radio signal it transmits and changes in the contents of the picture which it takes.

You have been called the “father of Wi-Fi”. Could you tell our readers about your contributions to this field?

Based on my 1983 research as a consultant to the GTE Laboratories, Waltham, MA, in June of 1985, I published a seminal paper entitled “Wireless Communications for Office Information Networks”, which was featured on the cover of the IEEE Communication Magazine. In this paper, I explored the possibility of using Infrared and Spread Spectrum Technology for wireless indoor communications. During 1987–1997 the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee completed its first drafted standard for WLAN with one option using infrared and two options for spread spectrum technology. In this period, I established the first academic research program on WLAN and received the first NSF award in this area to train first PhD students in this field. At the same time, I was also involved with industry as the chief technical advisor of a couple of companies (WINDATA and Roam About group at DEC), which played leading roles in early days of WLAN. In 1991, I brought the committee to Worcester, MA and organized the first IEEE International Conference on WLAN, in which, according to Dr. Mike Mracus, former Chief Engineer of FCC, “the future of Wi-Fi industry was decided.” In the same year, I also became involved as a co-founder in the IEEE International Symposium on Mobile, Indoor and Personal Communications (PIMRC), which has turned into a premier wireless conference and flagship gathering of the IEEE Communication Society in wireless communications.

In 1994 I founded the International Journal of Wireless Information Networks (IJWIN), the first journal in wireless networks, and in 1995, I was the lead author to publish the first academic textbook in the field: Wireless Information Networks. These diverse and entrepreneurial contributions laid a foundation for my reputation as a pioneering researcher and a leader in wireless communication and Wi-Fi technology.

I remember that Bruce Tuck, who designed the direct sequence spread spectrum technology that was adopted as the IEEE 802.11 standard, used to flatter me in his New Year Greetings cards by referring to me as “father of WLAN’. When I asked him why, he said because of the inspiration he had drawn from my 1985 paper and my mentorship and encouragements for newly emerging WLAN companies which were struggling with a slow growth in sales, to participate in my popular conference events, and to interact with the rest of the exponentially growing wireless industry in cellular and digital cordless telephone.

My contributions in indoor geo-location were based on my work on radio propagation modeling for wireless communications. It began by my participation in a DARPA program to analyze the effects of multi-path radio propagation on precision of indoor geo-location system using time of flight of the signal. I think the highlight of our research in indoor geo-location was pioneering empirical measurement and modeling of the effects of indoor multi-path in indoor areas to explain why the time of flight measurement, successfully used in the GPS for positioning with precision of a few meters, can make unexpected errors in the excess of tens of meters to measure distances in an indoor area.

With that knowledge, we published a seminal paper in 2002 on the future of the indoor geo-location science and technology, which underlined the importance of received signal strength based Wi-Fi localization and pattern recognition algorithms for indoor geo-location. Following a similar pattern that I had for my engagements with Wi-Fi related work, I worked with Skyhook Wireless as the chief technical advisor and I organized several high-profile conferences in that field which gained me a reputation as an authority and a leader in that field. Currently, I am on sabbatical, writing a book on indoor geo-location science and technology. My first book in 1995 on wireless indoor communications and the current book that I am writing on indoor geo-location focus on contributions of my laboratory in research and scholarship in these two fields.

My biggest professional contribution was arguably the ability to mentor and lead the research of over thirty PhD students and several post-docs to become effective industrialists and educators. My students have played key technical roles and have served as senior executives in major wireless companies such as Intel, QUALCOMM, Nokia, Broadcom, Rockwell International, and MediaTek, have been involved in pioneering start-up companies such as WINDATA and Skyhook, and are serving as professors in top educational institutions around the world.

You hold many U.S. patents. Can you tell us which ones have been your greatest achievement?

I have registered patents when I had association with the industry because patents are expensive and time consuming to pursue. In the industry, these patents turn to the assets of the company, so they are willing to pay for the costs and pursue the process.

My first two patents (with Holsinger) were related to high speed voice-band data communications over the telephone channels when I was working at the Infinet Inc., Andover, MA. More recently, I have had several patents (with Alizadeh and Morgan) for Skyhook Wireless, Boston in design and development of Wi-Fi Localization system that was adopted by Steve Jobs in original iPhone.Today, Skyhook database for Wi-Fi localization receives over a billion hits per day. 
 In my lab, we have developed pioneering empirical models and measurement systems for indoor multi-path for Wi-Fi (with Ganesh’89, Howard’89). We also used our models to show that using adaptive equalization (with Sexton’89, Howard’93) and M-Ary Orthogonal Spread Spectrum (with Chase’90) we can increase the 2Mbps data rate of original 802.11 WLANs to 20Mbps. This paved the way for HIPERLAN-1 and the IEEE 802.11b standards for WLANs with speeds beyond 2Mbps. We were also a pioneer in introducing techniques for integration of voice and data over WLAN (with Zhang’90). At that time, Wi-Fi was for data and cellular was for voice.

In indoor geo-location, we have developed pioneering empirical models to relate the distance and bandwidth to the precision of time of flight indoor geo-location systems (with Alavi’06), we have introduced a popular super-resolution algorithm for precise indoor ge-olocation (with Li’04), and we have introduced a method for using time of flight and similarities in consecutive images of the WVCE to achieve high precision localization inside the human body (with Bao’15, Geng’16).

What is the biggest challenge you have overcome in your career?

I think the decline of WLAN industry in the 1993–1997 was the biggest challenge for the growth of my research career. I overcame that by moving my skills in modeling of the multi-path propagation into indoor geo-location, which uses the same basic empirical experiments to overcome a different problem. In my Wi-Fi research I was trying to empirically measure the characteristics of multi-path indoor radio propagations and find communication and signal processing methods to increase the data rate for wireless communications. In my indoor geo-location research, I was trying to measure the empirical characteristics of the indoor radio channel pertinent to localization and design algorithms and methods to increase the precision of indoor geo-location systems. The timely shift of my direction from communication to localization opened an avenue for me to address new challenges based on my existing laboratory facilities. This way my PhD students benefited from an advanced laboratory facility to find innovative ideas for their research in an emerging scientifically challenging application.

In your view, what is the biggest challenge with which your field is currently grappling?

Today, wireless information networking industry is struggling with exponential growth of user demand for higher data rates and exponential growth of objects and devices connecting to the Internet to form the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is considered as the essential element of the emerging Smart World with smart transportation, smart buildings, smart health, smart appliances, smart grids and more.

How can wireless networks respond to the exponential growth of demand for data rate from billions of existing smart phone users? How can we securely connect trillions of Things and track their locations in the emerging IoT?

For that, the wireless information network industry is pushing for the 5G technology and it is considering shift towards small cells, millimeter waves (30–300GHz), and multiple streaming using beam forming. In localization industry, the biggest challenge is millimeter precision inside the human body to locate micro-robots such as WVCE, centimeter precision in a room for interactive electronic gaming, and meter precision in indoors for tracking autonomous vehicles. For that, we may need cyber physical systems for modeling the propagation inside the human body, ultra-wideband system for in-room localization, and integration of Wi-Fi localization with localization using IoT devices for localization in a building.

I know one of your hobbies is philosophy. Have you ever applied philosophical concepts, notions, and approaches to your field of expertise?

To me, philosophy is the ability to create “a metaphor” or “a story” around a complex phenomenon involved in multitudes of observing events that a person experiences. Everyone is a philosopher because all of us have a story for the meaning of life the way that we have experienced it. I always tell my students that engineering science is also creating “a metaphor” or “a story” around a specific technical experience that we go through the course of an experimental or analytical scientific research. From that angle, philosophy helped me to pull together the diversified results of scientific research with my students in books telling the story of an emerging technology. The ability to create a metaphor out of a complex phenomenon enables one to become a leader and a pioneer in a field. Studying philosophy enables you to gain skills for creating rational metaphors.

My philosophical views also helped me and my students to have a wider perspective of life and our mission in it as a scholar. Almost all my numerous PhD students have appreciated that part of my teachings and personality and have acknowledged that in the prefaces of their dissertation. I think my interest and readings in philosophy helped me to create a productive and meaningful environment for my students to grow in, because I was able to provide them with a broader picture for what they accomplish in detailed scientific research.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

To me, being an Iranian-American means being a representative of the Persian culture, a seven thousand year old culture widely referred to as the “cradle of the humanity”, in our new home “the America, the Beautiful”. Persian culture reflects wisdom, human rights, diversity, gender equality, honesty and justice; and Iranians have always been strong, serious, hardworking and happy people seizing every opportunity to celebrate the life. I have tried to be an example of that lifestyle to reflect the true side of our misunderstood culture in the recent years. I think every Iranian-American should try to follow that path, as well.