Science & Technology

These 3D-Printed Gadgets Connect to Wi-Fi Without Electricity

In a blink of an eye, technology has gone from computers the size of a room to wireless devices that fit in the palm of your hand. Now, researchers at the University of Washington have gone a step further by creating gadgets that connect to Wi-Fi without electricity or even a commercial manufacturer — you can 3D print 'em yourself.

Batteries Not Included

What if you could control the volume on your computer with a slider that doesn't need batteries? Or turn on a porch light with a mechanical button you keep on a keychain? Or even get replacement laundry detergent before you ever realized you were low? That's what the research team from the University of Washington Networks & Mobile Systems lab have created.

"Our goal is to 3D print wireless sensors, input widgets and objects that can communicate with smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices, without the need for batteries or electronics," the researchers write on their project website.

The way these gadgets work isn't far from that of your run-of-the-mill mechanical watch. Just like a watch gets its power from the energy of a wound-up spring, each object relies on springs, gears, or switches that are triggered by the physical motion, like the push of a button or the flow of liquid from a bottle. The actual wireless communication comes in the form of a tiny 3D-printed antenna that's designed to piggyback on the ambient Wi-Fi signals in a room and reflect them back into the smartphone or computer of your choice. Those signals are reflected in specific patterns embedded with information other devices can decode. With every physical trigger, the mechanical motion makes a switch connect or disconnect with that antenna and affect whether it reflects or absorbs Wi-Fi signals.

For example, say you have a gadget that attaches to the spout of your laundry detergent bottle. As you pour detergent, a wheel turns and triggers the antenna, which wirelessly transmits data about how fast it's moving (and therefore how much detergent has left the bottle) to your smartphone. Your smartphone keeps tabs on that data, and when the detergent level has gotten low enough, it can automatically order more online. It would basically act as an Amazon Dash button, minus the button — and the battery.

The Best Part

So no wires, no batteries, and virtually unlimited uses. Surely they're charging an arm and a leg for this tech, right? Actually, no. If you've got a 3D printer, you can build one of their devices for free, right now. The research website includes all of the CAD models, antenna information, and instructions you need to make one of these magical, battery-free gadgets. What are you waiting for? Start inventing!

To try your hand at 3D printing, check out "The 3D Printing Handbook: Technologies, Design and Applications" by Ben Redwood, Filemön Schöffer, and Brian Garret. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

3D Printing Wireless Connected Objects

Written by Ashley Hamer January 9, 2018