The future lab

Faster mobile phones and higher precision images: The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute continues to drive innovation in the digital sphere. Even at the ripe old age of 90, it’s still ahead of its time

Prof. Dr. Thomas Wiegand © Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz-Institut

Day after day, a group of electrical engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists make their way to a high-rise on Einsteinufer and an office building on Salzufer to shape our future. Indeed, these men and women perform research into the very things that will most likely change our lives in a matter of years. As seen on the whiteboard in Professor Thomas Wiegand’s office, this future involves imposing columns of inscrutable numbers and formulas: “It’s a mathematical method we use to determine how to compress video data most effectively”, says Wiegand. The 47-year-old is one of the co-heads of the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, a type of future lab for digital technology and an institute that looks back on an almost 90-year history. With tremendous patience, Wiegand takes great effort to describe some of his institute’s current and past projects in layman’s terms. “Ultimately, however”, says Wiegand, gesturing to the board of complicated formulas, “science is based on the ideas of the people performing the research”.

In the past several years, many of the innovations co-developed by the institute’s researchers on behalf of companies all over the world were launched in Charlottenburg and went on to become the tech standards we all take for granted today. One example would be mobile data transmission, such as the 4G in our mobile phones. Another would be the conversion of image data into bits and bytes, as it was used initially in HD devices and today in 4K devices and DVB-T2. Many of the institute’s projects have also received top prizes. However, Wiegand is much more interested in exploring the future rather than revisiting past accolades. Indeed, when he glances from his desk out the window to the antenna on the high-rise Fraunhofer HHI building next door, he’s actually looking at one of his current projects.

The future of mobile communication is 5G. This new standard makes it possible to transmit very large amounts of data, roughly 1,000 times today’s mobile communication standard of 4G. “We plan to build a 5G innovation cluster that operates its own test field, and we’re working on a transmission infrastructure that also involves street lanterns all across the campus of Berlin’s Technische Universität”, says Wiegand. In the coming year, after an initial test phase, digital startups in the City West area could already begin benefitting from this new generation of digital wireless technology. “At this moment, we’re sitting in the very heart of digitisation,” says Wiegand. “We’re building the optical technologies that will form the backbone of the internet. We’re also transferring data using 5G, compressing videos and working on technologies for virtual reality”. The institute has long since taken up a leading role worldwide, as demonstrated by many of the successful innovations mentioned by Wiegand: “One in every two bits on the internet comes into contact with one of our optical components or is formatted with the video standard we developed”.

Yet another hot topic at the Fraunhofer HHI is the much-discussed field of machine learning and artificial intelligence. In the future, many decisions will be made with the help of computers: for example, deep neural networks will be used to diagnose cancer, control self-driving cars and approve credit loans. In order to elucidate these decisions, researchers have developed a method to decipher and explain the decision-making processes of deep neural networks. The institute is clearly an international leader in the field of digital transformation, and it will continue to address key questions that will have long-term effects on our society in the future.

Fraunhofer HHI
Kluge Köpfe 2017