FM Backscatter to Enable Connect Cities with Smart Objects

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Engineers at the University of Washington have designed a new way for us to interact with our world and the objects in it. Thanks to some forward-thinking work, it is now possible to have posters, signs, and even clothing outfitted with ‘smart’ technology. This lets them communicate directly with your smartphone, and takes our experience with the world around us to a whole new level.

The secret to this technology is FM backscatter, a wholly new method for using outdoor radio signals. Instead of having to waste energy generating its own radio signals, it piggybacks onto the ones that are already out there and available. This results in virtually no energy being used in the process, allowing these objects to transmit for long spaces of time.

FM radio signals are everywhere. You can listen to music or news in your car and it’s a common way for us to get our information. So what we do is basically make each of these everyday objects into a mini FM radio station at almost zero power.”

co-author and University of Washington computer science and engineering doctoral student Anran Wang.

These signals can be easily transmitted to a variety of objects. To demonstrate the effectiveness, engineers set up a band poster that would literally play music on people’s smartphones as they passed. This technology has many more possible applications than just marketing, however. Engineers believe it could be used to provide directions (such as announcing street names when a person passed under a sign), or offer up interesting local information on the city. All people would have to do to take advantage would be to tune in on their smartphones or car radios.

This technology could even be transferred to clothes. Smart fabrics could be used for health and fitness purposes. Imagine a shirt that records your body’s analytics as you jog, and transfers all the data directly to your smartphone. Like the posters and signs mentioned above, this ‘smart clothing’ would rely on FM backscatter to succeed. And now that scientists have harnessed this new technology, the possibilities are practically endless.

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