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Battery-free sensors to simplify smart homes

Building a smart home could soon become easier, thanks to new technology developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

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The University of Waterloo’s recent study describes an approach that can be used to deploy, for the first time, battery-free sensors into a home using existing Wi-Fi networks. Previous attempts to use battery-free sensors ran into obstacles, like the need to modify existing Wi-Fi access points, challenges with security protocols, and the need to use energy-hungry components. 

“If you look at the current sensor products, they need batteries, which nobody likes to have to change, but they will work with commodity WiFi,” said Omid Abari, an Assistant Professor in Waterloo’s David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. “There has been recent research which proposes approaches that don’t need batteries. But while they’re addressing the battery problem, they’re adding another issue; it doesn’t work with commodity WiFi devices.” 

“So, our approach combines the best of these two worlds – it is battery-free, and it works with commodity WiFi devices.” 

The new communication mechanism outlined in the study, called WiTAG, could, therefore, revolutionize the smart home industry as the Waterloo researchers have shown, for the first time, that battery-free sensors can be used with common WiFi access points.  

WiTAG will enable the use of regular WiFi devices for reading data from smart devices, unlike existing products that use power-hungry WiFi transmitters to send their data and therefore require the use of batteries. 

WiTAG uses radio frequency (RF) signals as a power source and makes use of existing WiFi infrastructures to read data from sensors without requiring the sensors to be connected to the WiFi network which makes them much easier to deploy. This allows smart home technologies such as temperature sensors, light sensors and potentially wearable devices, such as, Fitbits and those that monitor heart rate and glucose levels to use the WiTAG system.  

“One of the biggest breakthroughs is the fact that our technique works with encryption enabled,” said Tim Brecht, an Associate Professor in Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science. “The prior proposed techniques for battery-free communication do not work with encrypted WiFi networks, meaning that your WiFi network could not use a password; which no one wants.” 

The researchers, who have filed a provisional patent, implemented WiTAG and created the first prototype, are now working on a second prototype. They are also developing an app that will work with the system and have plans to support a wide variety of applications.  

“By having the application running on a phone without any other modification either to the phone or to the access point we can read sensor data,” said Ali Abedi, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science. “Data can be read from things such as temperature sensors or anything you see in smart homes.” 

A paper describing the system, titled WiTAG: Rethinking Backscatter Communication for WiFi Networks, which was co-authored by Abari, Brecht, Abedi and Mohammad Hossein Mazaheri, a Research Assistant at Waterloo recently appeared in the Proceedings of the 17th ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks.

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ConceptD: Creatives get a tech brand of their own

The unveiling of a new brand by Acer recognises the massive computing power needed in creative professions, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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It’s a crisp Spring morning in Brooklyn. The regular water taxi from Manhattan pulls up at Duggal Greenhouse on the edge of the East River. It’s a building that symbolises the rejuvenation of Brooklyn as a hub of artistic and creative expression.

Inside the vast structure, global computer brand Acer is about to unveil its own tribute to creativity. Company CEO Jason Chen takes to the stage in faded blue jeans and brown t-shirt, underlining the connection of the event to the informality of the area.

“Brooklyn is become more and more diverse,” he tells a gathering of press from around the world, attending the Next@Acer media event. “It’s an area that is up and coming. It represents new lifestyles. And our theme today is turning a new chapter for creativity.”

Every year, Next@Acer is a parade of the cutting edge in gaming and educational laptops and computers. New devices from sub-brands like Predator, Helios and Nitro have gamers salivating. This year is no different, but there is a surprise in store, hinted in Chen’s introduction.

As a grand finale, he calls on stage Angelica Davila, whose day job is senior marketing manager for Acer Latin America. But she also happens to have a Masters degree in computer and electric engineering. A stint at Intel, where she joined a sales and marketing programme for engineers, set her on a new path.

Angelica Davila, marketing manager for Acer Latin America

For the last few months, she has been helping write Acer’s next chapter. She has shepherded into being nothing less than a new brand: ConceptD.

Click here to read more about ConceptD.

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Which voice assistant wins battle of translators?

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Take the most famous phrase from the Godfather – “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” – or “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from the inaugural address of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and see just how the virtual assistants do in translating them using their newly introduced Neural Machine Translation (NMT) capabilities. One Hour Translation (OHT), the world’s largest online translation service, conducted a study to find out just how accurate these new services are.

OHT used 60 sentences from movies and famous people ranging from the Godfather and Wizard of Oz to Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, US presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy and historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Aesop. The sentences were translated by Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri from English to French, Spanish, Chinese and German and then given to five professional translators for their assessment on a scale of 1-6. 

Google Assistant scored highest in three of the four languages surveyed – English to French, English to German and English to Spanish and second in English to Chinese.  Amazon’s Alexa, whose translation engine is powered by Microsoft Translator, was tops in the English to Chinese category. Apple’s Siri was second place in English to French and English to Spanish and third place in English to German and English to Chinese.  (See chart). All three virtual assistants are compatible with mobile phones.

“The automated assistants’ translation quality was relatively high, which means that assistants are useful for handling simple translations automatically,” says Yaron Kaufman, chief marketing officer and co-founder of OHT. He predicts that “there is no doubt that the use of assistants is growing rapidly, is becoming a part of our lives and will make a huge contribution to the business world.” 

A lot will depend on further improvements in NMT technology, which has revolutionized the field of translation over the past two years.  All the companies active in the field are investing large sums as part of this effort. “OHT is working with several of the leading NMT providers to improve their engines through the use of its hybrid online translation service that combines NMT and human post-editing,” notes Kaufman. He adds that this will no doubt have a huge impact on the use of assistants for translation purposes.

OHT has made a name for itself in assessing the level of translations by NMT engines.  Its ONEs Evaluation Score is a unique human-based assessment of the leading NMT engines conducted on a quarterly basis and used as an industry standard. 

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