No Batteries, Wires Or Plugs: Student Team Makes Plastic Devices That Communicate Via Wi-Fi

By Catherine Long
The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A team of graduate students and faculty at the University of Washington is looking for low-power (or no-power) ways to enhance communication with household objects.


You don’t have to ask Alexa, or even push a button. With new devices pioneered by a University of Washington computer science team, battery-less objects made entirely of plastic could communicate with other devices on your home network.

For example, a laundry detergent bottle could monitor your detergent use for you, and order more when you’re running low.

And you could print or design similar objects yourself, using a standard 3-D printer.

The new concept is the latest idea to come out of the Allen School’s Networks and Mobile Systems Lab at UW, a team of graduate students and faculty looking for low-power (or no-power) ways to enhance communication with those household objects that are commonly known as the internet of things.

The same team also has created a battery-free cellphone that uses almost no power and never needs to be charged. And they created a “singing poster” that could broadcast a song to somebody standing nearby by piggybacking onto FM radio waves.

The lab is throwing its newest concept out to the wider world, hoping an army of tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers, or “makers,” will fire up their 3-D printers and their imaginations, and figure out cool things to do with the technology.

With the plans available online, “it really empowers people to make things that are custom-made for their needs,” said Shyam Gollakota, associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. He directs the Networks and Mobile Systems Lab, which employs six doctoral students

The 3-D printed objects use plastic gears, springs and switches to create mechanical movement, like an old-fashioned windup watch. That movement allows the devices to communicate via Wi-Fi, taking advantage of the router in your house or office that’s constantly broadcasting a radio signal.

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