The computers in a local-area network at The Travelers Cos., in Hartford, aren't linked by thick electrical cords snaking across ceilings and down walls. Yet its terminals magically communicate with one another and a central processor just as in a conventional LAN. The difference is that Travelers is "wired" by infrared light, a medium that (along with radio waves) is already freeing office networks from the physical bondage of coaxial cable -- and the fiscal pain of leaving it behind if you move.

Not only can today's powerful desktop systems exchange data among themselves without visible support, but by the end of this year they'll be joined by battery-operated portables with identical abilities. That's the expectation of Gary Hughes, CEO of Photonics, in Campbell, Calif., an original-equipment-manufacturer supplier of the transceivers that will go inside the briefcase-size machines.

Infrared signals will allow the portables to be plugged into existing hard-wired office networks. But a more beguiling application is a concept wireless techies have termed "collaborative computing." Under it -- for only about $100 more tacked on to the retail price of a typical laptop -- we'll see regional managers at a national sales meeting, say, pump figures from their portables into a central processing unit, creating a companywide sales picture. Based on the results, the gathering can then collectively formulate the next year's campaign. Lest competitors should be lurking outside with their portables, the infrared signals can be kept within the confines of four walls, Hughes reassures apprehensive executives. -- Robert A. Mamis

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Wireless-Lan Players

Infrared implementation:

Photonics, Campbell, Calif., (408) 370-3033.

BICC Communications, Auburn, Mass., (508) 832-8650.

Radio implementation:

Motorola Corp., Arlington Heights, Ill., (800) 233-0877.

NCR, Dayton, Ohio, (800) 544-3333.