New Wi-Fi reflector chip to let wearables use 1,000 times less energy

23 Jul 2015

Wearables about to get a whole lot faster and more energy efficient. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

The speed at which a wearable device goes through its battery could be about to change thanks to a new Wi-Fi reflector chip that doesn’t need to power a signal sent back to another device, making it much more efficient.

One of the biggest issues for wearables is what would be considered an excessive amount of energy used to power the signal between it and the host device on a Wi-Fi signal.

Currently, wearable devices require energy to send back the signal, which consumes large quantities of energy for a battery with a small mAh capacity.

However, now NASA scientists believe they are on to a solution that would allow the wearable device use a fraction of the energy with the help of a newly-developed chip.

Led by Adrian Tang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the team says it has developed a chip that acts as a reflector for Wi-Fi signal, rather than receiving and sending back from the device, which it says will allow it to work three times faster as a result.

“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 of the chip.

Wearables Wi-Fi chip

Wi-Fi reflector chip developed by Tang and Chang. Image via JPL-Caltech/UCLA

However, both Tang and his partner in the project, MC Frank Chang, said there are still a number of challenges to be overcome before it can be adopted en masse.

The biggest challenge to overcome is developing a reflecting signal from the wearable device that won’t receive interference from other objects in a room such as walls and furniture.

During testing, they used a distance between the wearable device and receiver of up to 6m and, at a distance of 2.5m, received a transfer rate of 330 megabits per second – three times faster and using 1,000-times less energy than the Wi-Fi rate.

“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 explained.

They also warn that, to compensate, the Wi-Fi router will have to use more energy to compensate, but this is something the pair will now be looking to figure a solution to.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic