Smart Wallpaper Boosts Wi-Fi Signal

Technology holds the promise of better-connected small devices

Many connected household devices, given their small size, offer little space for placing antennas, thereby complicating the task of providing a good signal. This makes designing a multiband antenna for such devices particularly challenging.

In March 2020, scientists from the MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory will present a paper about a smart surface at the USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation in Santa Clara, California.

The paper’s theme is RFocus, a software-controlled smart surface that uses more than 3,000 antennas to maximize the strength of the signal for the receiver. The signal can either be let through or reflected. Tests showed that the technology could improve the average signal strength by a factor of almost 10. The platform is also very cost-effective, with each antenna priced at only a few cents.

The immediate goal for RFocus is to act as a type of Wi-Fi range extender. The smart surface concept solves the problem of indoor environments where signals can be blocked and it becomes necessary to install expensive boosters to improve wireless signal strength. We envision RFocus serving a more valuable purpose in network-connected homes, offices and factories.

For example, a warehouse might need hundreds of network sensors to monitor machines and other devices. The set-up could end up being quite costly and power-hungry. But a low-power, low-cost system like RFocus could provide the necessary signal strength in an inexpensive way, as the antennas don’t process the signal at all, they merely control how it’s reflected.

This isn’t the first time that such a process has been tried. A team at Princeton University proposed a similar system for people using computers on either side of a wall. However, RFocus’ design is a less expensive system that could be used in a wide variety of settings.

RFocus can be installed in the form of an inexpensive thin “wallpaper”, needing no wiring. The researchers imagine a future where RFocus is used in homes and warehouses to boost signals for the Internet of things and various network-connected devices.

Right now, RFocus is still in the test phase, with no indication as to when or if it gravitates to being commercially available. But as we increasingly rely on wireless communication in homes, businesses, factories and other locations, the research holds promise for a better connected future.