Simple plastic devices can connect to Wi-Fi and transmit information with no electronics

Internet of things is something we heard too many times about. It will never happen. We don‘t want our fridges to be connected to the internet, nor we want our washing machines sending messages to our phones. However, some ideas are better than other. Scientists from the University of Washington created a technology allowing 3D-printed objects to connect to Wi-Fi without any Electronics or batteries.

The basic mechanism borrows its design from an automatic wrist watch. Image credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Researchers created a simple switch, which can be activated mechanically using 3D printed parts. When this switch is activated, it alters the ambient signal of any WI-FI. What does that mean? Anyone can download these plans and make these tiny gadgets that will connect to any Wi-Fi and can control a variety of things. For example, it can measure wind speed. Veins of the rotor can trigger the switch. The higher the frequency of these impulses, the faster the wind – this interpretation part is left to the software. Other devices can measure water flow, inform about opening and closing of the door and complete many other tasks.

This method, called backscatter techniques, is basically borrowed from some auto-mechanical watches that work without batteries or electronics. The mechanism includes gears and springs, but the most important part is the antenna. It basically reflects the Wi-Fi signal in two different ways, depending if the button is pressed. In other words, this simple plastic device is able to send out 1’s and 0’s completely by itself. Computers and smartphones just have to interpret this information. Interestingly, the entire device can be made from 3D-printed parts – even the antenna is made from special conductive filament that is made by mixing plastic and copper.

The team of researchers also made some things that can be used as controllers – buttons or even sliders. Smart applications of these devices are very interesting. For example, flow meter can be used on bottles of laundry detergent. Shyam Gollakota, senior author of the study, said: “As you pour detergent out of a Tide bottle, for instance, the speed at which the gears are turning tells you how much soap is flowing out. The interaction between the 3-D printed switch and antenna wirelessly transmits that data”. What is left for your smartphone to do is to track how much detergent was poured out and how much is left. It can even order some more automatically.

Whether this technology could become a consumer product remains to be seen. So far it is a cool 3D printing project, available to all enthusiasts. Scientists are also talking about BAR code readers and other devices that can work without any active electronics.


Source: University of Washington

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