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One of the hurdles facing the “Internet of things” is the need for every device to have a source of power. Thanks to new research published by a team at the University of Washington, that may not be a restriction for much longer.

The researchers, using a method they call “ambient backscatter,” have built small devices that can communicate with one another and exchange data without a battery. Rather than generating a signal themselves, the ambient backscatter devices communicate by either absorbing or reflecting ambient signals, like those from a TV tower.

“We can repurpose wireless signals that are already around us into both a source of power and a communication medium,” lead researcher Shyam Gollakota, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering said in a press release. “It’s hopefully going to have applications in a number of areas including wearable computing, smart homes and self-sustaining sensor networks.”

According to the report, researchers were able to get transmission rates of up to a kilobit per second when the ambient backscatter devices were in fairly close proximity to one another. That means that the technology is well suited to text message-sized communications, but not, for example, photo transmission.

The team presented the results of its research at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication conference in Hong Kong, where they won an award for best paper.

It’s unclear how well a large number of ambient backscatter devices would work in a small area, but the researchers envision a world where they could be embedded into walls or pieces of furniture without the worry of having to be re-charged.

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