There's a reason people are so hyped up about the coming internet of things, and it's because if and when ubiquitous computing actually comes to pass it'll be amazingly surreal. A couple of credit cards near each other could transfer money between them, because they know your bill is due soon. Your iWatch could tell your smart TV to start recording Breaking Bad because your Google calendar knows you're out of town that week. All without any human effort.
What's kept the idea a concept instead of a reality thus far isn't innovation so much infrastructure. Popular Science laid out the nicely in an article yesterday: "The Internet of Things is actually hundreds of smaller, fractured Internets. Devices exist in their own discrete networks, which forces consumers to either choose among them or operate in several at once," it wrote. "Getting them to work in sync is the hard part."
Engineers from the University of Washington may have cracked that nut. They recently developed a way for devices to communicate with each other, using existing wireless, TV, or cellular signals already floating around the air. What's more, their "ambient backscatter" technology is able to harness those signals and transform them into a power source for those very devices.
Researchers published their results this week and presented them at the the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication 2013 conference, underway now in Hong Kong.
Leeching power from wireless airwaves—a variation of Nikola Tesla's vision for wireless power way back in 19th century—is also a big milestone for the internet of things. The average household today has 10 smart gadgets, and experts predict that that will jump to 50 within the next 10 years. Who wants to worry about replacing the batteries or plugging in the USB charger for 50 gadgets scattered around the house?
With the ambient backscatter, devices don't need batteries or wires to work, just a small antenna, which flashes when it receives a communication signal from another device. That sounds almost too good to be true. I mean, how great would it be if you never again had to worry about your laptop or cell phone dying because you forgot to plug it in? Granted, at this point the backscatter prototype can power mere microwatts—enough for a microcontroller, but a Macbook, not so much. It'll be interesting to see if the technology can scale.
Now back to the part where inanimate objects are chatting it up. The smart objects enabled with the technology communicate by "backscattering" existing ambient RF signals (hence the name). It's like Morse code for gadgets, the researchers said.
Via the University of Washington
So far, the ambient backscatter can deliver information between devices at about a kilobit per second—just enough to send a text message—for up to two and a half feet. So, as an example, your could text your iPhone that your keys are stuck between the cushions.
You could also conceivably embed the sensors into everyday, "dumb" objects, so they too could interact with all the other devices on the network. The world around us would be a big, automated, intelligent, invisible machine.
At the University of Washington, researchers successfully tested the ambient backscatter in a couple scenarios. One, a smart bus pass was able to transfer money to other cards nearby. "When a user swipes the touch sensor int he presence of another card, it transmits the current balance stored in the microcontroller and confirms the transaction by flashing the LED light," researchers wrote.
Two, smart tags on grocery items—in this case, cereal boxes—could interact with shelves, and would blink to communicate if a box was out of place.
Researchers go on to name a handful of potential applications for the new technology: A bridge enabled with sensors could send an alert if there's a crack in the concrete. You could pay the bill in a restaurant by swiping the credit card on the bill itself. I'll let your imagination can take if from here.