These 3D-Printed Plastic Objects Can Use WiFi Without Any Electronics

Smart team makes smart objects. Mark Stone/UW

Have you ever gone through the harrowing experience of going to grab some milk, wanting to know how much was left in the carton, but suddenly becoming unable to summon the energy to physically check for yourself? Well, now you’re in luck: the University of Washington (UW) has invented a process in which 3D-printed objects connect to your WiFi – without the aid of conventional electronics – in order to give you such updates automatically.

Don’t get us wrong: the technology is extremely cool. The fact is that this proof-of-concept study could pave the way for a huge range of smart devices, such as “powerless” detectors that register gas or water leaks in your house and alert you instantaneously.

The UW team aren’t the first to come up with these sorts of self-reliant devices. Back in 2015, for example, a separate team developed a tiny, $0.20 temperature sensor that didn’t require a battery or constant source of wired electricity. 3D printing isn't new either, and already, researchers can print out human organs using biological "ink".

The UW team are, however, the first to combine both in this rather clever way.

One of the 3D-printed analog gears. The way they move, and the pace at which they move, encodes digital data using nothing but analog motion. Mark Stone/UW

Presenting their paper at the cacophonously named Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Asia, the team also showcased one of their inventions: a 3D-printed laundry soap box that keeps an eye on its volume and orders more when it’s running down.

Without any power source to worry about, these devices are decidedly eco-friendly, and very cheap to manufacture.

What technological sorcery is this, you may be wondering? Well, think about analog watches. They keep time thanks to a mechanical architecture that siphons off kinetic energy from you moving about, and stores it over time. The team wondered if they could borrow principles like this in their own marvelous project.

They guessed right. In this case, they looked into a phenomenon named ambient backscatter. This is a low-power communications technology that utilizes radio frequency signals, like those being emitted by WiFi devices, as a power source.

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