NASA invents reflector chip to speed up wearables’ Wi-Fi while dramatically increasing battery life

Whether you’re tracking your steps, monitoring your health or sending photos, you want the battery life of your Apple Watch to last as long as possible. If the power necessary to transmit and receive information from your Apple Watch to a computer, cellular or Wi-Fi network were reduced, you could get a lot more mileage out of the technology you’re wearing before having to recharge it.

Adrian Tang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is working on a technology to do just that. He and M.C. Frank Chang at the University of California, Los Angeles, have been working on microchips for wearable devices that reflect wireless signals instead of using regular transmitters and receivers. Their solution transmits information up to three times faster than regular Wi-Fi.

“The idea is if the wearable device only needs to reflect the Wi-Fi signal from a router or cell tower, instead of generate it, the power consumption can go way down (and the battery life can go way up),” Tang said in a statement.

Information transmitted to and from a wearable device is encoded as 1s and 0s, just like data on a computer. This needs to be represented somehow in the system the wearable device uses to communicate. When incoming energy is absorbed by the circuit, that’s a “0,” and if the chip reflects that energy, that’s a “1.” This simple switch mechanism uses very little power and allows for the fast transfer of information between a wearable device and a computer, smart phone, tablet or other technology capable of receiving the data.

The challenge for Tang and his colleagues is that the wearable device isn’t the only object in a room that reflects signals – so do walls, floors, ceilings, furniture and whatever other objects happen to be around. The chip in the wearable device needs to differentiate between the real Wi-Fi signal and the reflection from the background.

To overcome background reflections, Tang and Chang developed a wireless silicon chip that constantly senses and suppresses background reflections, enabling the Wi-Fi signal to be transmitted without interference from surrounding objects.

The technologists have tested the system at distances of up to 20 feet (6 meters). At about 8 feet (2.5 meters), they achieved a data transfer rate of 330 megabits per second, which is about three times the current Wi-Fi rate, using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link.

“You can send a video in a couple of seconds, but you don’t consume the energy of the wearable device. The transmitter externally is expending energy – not the watch or other wearable,” Chang said in a statement.

A base station and Wi-Fi service are still required for the system to work. To compensate for the low power drain on the wearable device, the computer or other technology it’s communicating with must have a long battery life or else be plugged in. The router will experience more power usage, too. The next challenge for the engineers will be to examine this issue.

There are a multitude of potential applications for this technology, including in space. For example, astronauts and robotic spacecraft could potentially use this technology to transmit images at a lower cost to their precious power supplies. This might also allow more images to be sent concurrently.

Wearable devices like the Apple Watch are a hot topic in medicine, too. Some doctors envision that Apple Watches will become essential for monitoring vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rhythm. Such innovations could detect problems early, save lives, and avoid costly hospital admissions.

The patent application for this technology is jointly owned by the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, and UCLA. There are agreements in place for the commercialization of the technology, NASA says.

Source: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

MacDailyNews Take: Wi-Fi that’s 3X the speed at 1/1000th the power? Sounds like a perfect technology for Apple Watch!

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Armando” for the heads up.]


  1. Nice delusion, MDN. Got any more specs on Apple vaporware? How about the micro flux capacitor engineered by nano robots controlled by thought waves. I think Apple has hidden the research facility on the dark side of the moon. Workers commute via transporters.

    1. Pie in the sky!

      I am glad it is not a crabapple pie either!!! 🙂

      Cutting to the chase, The router or plugged in computer needs to draw more power to compensate for the short coming of the reflecting chip in that it is not using power from its own host.
      So, the router or computer has now to consume more than twice the power it needed to before the advent of this chip. I say twice because the router/computer which I will abbreviate to roucom needs power for itself, for the chip that is forwarding the reflected signal and power for that signal as it arrived under-powered.

      What is wrong with the present mode where each gadget consumes the energy it needs?

      It seems logical to me that 3/4 energy consumption is better than 4/4. In which the 3 stands for Watch, Router & Computer as opposed to Watch, Router, Computer & Reflector chip.

      What are bloggers thoughts on my conjecture?

        1. OK, since it is technically using microwaves from the ground to heat the hydrogen (and save weight) it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘popcorn in the sky’….

      1. I imagine that it could be more than twice the power consumption, depending on the range, because the signal travels twice the distance (round trip from the router or computer). If you want to maintain the same SNR, doesn’t it take ten times the power to double the RF distance?

        However, if you were to accept fairly limited range (similar to bluetooth), then this could be a viable short-range mode of WiFi operation from Apple Watch to iPhone or iPhone to home WiFi, etc.

        Regardless, I am glad that scientists and engineers continue to question the status quo and push on the boundaries. I never would have thought of this technique, and it seems interesting even if it does not end up having any near-term impact.

    2. In case you didn’t read or it was over your head, this is a NASA invention and it’s brilliant. It’s not Apple vapourware Apple has nothing to do with this development except that their tech will benefit from it greatly. Just like your Samsung phone will once Apple has implemented it first.

  2. It may work well for Buetooth distances, but not for Wi-Fi because like with passive radar, the reflected signal strength decreases much more drastically with increasing distance than with active transmitters (like current BT or Wi-Fi). In order to get to 10 times larger distances (200 feet instead of 20), the Wi-Fi station needs 10000 times more energy. Damn physics.

  3. I can see that this will work in a laboratory, but I have my doubts about how effective it might be in real world conditions.

    In order to differentiate between the ‘intentional’ reflections from the device and the ‘unintentional’ reflections from the surroundings, the base unit has to constantly map and fine tune the ambient reflections. Under controlled and fairly static circumstances, this may be realistic, but I do find myself wondering how much change the system can really cope with? For instance, if you’re in your living room, with children running around and playing with moving toys, how well would the system be able to differentiate between those reflections and the reflections of a device?

    I would add that I was once involved with a very early television demo of BlueTooth technology in the mid 90’s and every single demo device failed to work. We had to fake it so that the devices appeared to be working on the TV show. I was utterly convinced that BlueTooth would never become a useful technology, yet it’s gone on to be ubiquitous.

  4. Pet peeve:

    “…using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link.”

    It can use one-thousandth of the power, but not 1000 times less. It is not possible to use negative power.

    This is so prevalent and so inaccurate that it galls me. Even scientific and engineering articles sometimes err on this issue. I saw this very mistake in an are technics article just yesterday.

    People say 3x less when they mean 1/3 as much or 2/3 less. And it often gets even more screwed up when percentages are involved. 300% of something means 3x as much as the reference. 300% greater than something means 4x as much as the reference.

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