MIT smart surface makes Wi-Fi ten times stronger

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A team of MIT researchers created a surface that boosts wireless signals by a factor of ten.
Image: Jason Dorfman | CSAIL

As today’s gadgets continue to shrink, they sometimes must compromise on wireless connection quality. With space for antennas disappearing, device manufacturers have had to come up with clever ways to work around this issue. Soon, they might have another option at their disposal.

A new material created by MIT’s CSAIL researchers called RFocus claims to boost wireless signals by a factor of ten. The “smart surface” has huge implications for the tech world and could soon be refined for use in real-world settings. For instance, it could theoretically be placed inside walls to enhance Wi-Fi signals in a person’s home.

Refined Focus

There are a few methods of transmitting and receiving wireless signals. However, antennas are the most useful because of their relative simplicity and size. To increase a signal’s strength, device manufacturers either add them to the receiver (like a phone or computer) or to the transmitter (like a cell tower or router). These monolithic components work well but aren’t as efficient as they could be.

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RFocus works differently. The MIT team developed a material that “can work as a mirror or a lens” to focus radio signals. It accomplishes this with an array of 3,000 tiny antennas and software that automatically arranges them to provide the best signal transduction possible. In essence, it acts as a fence that either lets a signal through or reflects it depending on where it is most needed at the moment.

Engadget’s Jon Fingas explains that “RFocus is acting as a beamforming controller in the middle, as opposed to letting the radio endpoints—transmitters and client devices—manage this activity.”

This focusing action creates a much stronger signal than traditional methods. The team claims that RFocus can improve average signal strengths by a factor of ten. Meanwhile, the solution is cheap to implement and isn’t demanding in terms of power consumption.

Revolutionizing Wireless

There is practically no limit to the impact of faster wireless connections. From Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets to smartphones and warehouse machinery to enterprise tech infrastructures, every field would appreciate stronger signals.

MIT’s official press release uses the example of a smart warehouse equipped with hundreds of monitoring sensors that keep track of inventory. It says that implementing a wireless connectivity protocol in that environment would be very costly. However, RFocus and its low power consumption could make it possible.

Professor Hari Balakrishnan says, “The core goal here was to explore whether we can use elements in the environment and arrange them to direct the signal in a way that we can actually control.”

He goes on to add, “If you want to have wireless devices that transmit at the lowest possible power, but give you a good signal, this seems to be one extremely promising way to do it.”

RFocus is an innovative approach to networking and wireless connectivity. Rather than focusing on what users hold in their hands, it focuses on the environment around them. Typically, walls are an obstacle to wireless signals. If RFocus can be scaled appropriately, it could turn that concept upside down.

Walls of future homes may actually enhance wireless signals for those who live, work, and play inside. With everyone focusing on faster, stronger connections, such a breakthrough shouldn’t go unnoticed.

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