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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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Second-hand smartphone market booms

The worldwide market for used smartphones is forecast to grow to 332.9 million units, with a market value of $67 billion, in 2023, according to IDC

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International Data Corporation (IDC) expects worldwide shipments of used smartphones, inclusive of both officially refurbished and used smartphones, to reach a total of 206.7 million units in 2019. This represents an increase of 17.6% over the 175.8 million units shipped in 2018. A new IDC forecast projects used smartphone shipments will reach 332.9 million units in 2023 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.6% from 2018 to 2023.

This growth can be attributed to an uptick in demand for used smartphones that offer considerable savings compared with new models. Moreover, OEMs have struggled to produce new models that strike a balance between desirable new features and a price that is seen as reasonable. Looking ahead, IDC expects the deployment of 5G networks and smartphones to impact the used market as smartphone owners begin to trade in their 4G smartphones for the promise of high-performing 5G devices.

Anthony Scarsella, research manager with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, says: “In contrast to the recent declines in the new smartphone market, as well as the forecast for minimal growth in new shipments over the next few years, the used market for smartphones shows no signs of slowing down across all parts of the globe. Refurbished and used devices continue to provide cost-effective alternatives to both consumers and businesses that are looking to save money when purchasing a smartphone. Moreover, the ability for vendors to push more affordable refurbished devices in markets in which they normally would not have a presence is helping these players grow their brand as well as their ecosystem of apps, services, and accessories.”

Worldwide Used Smartphone Shipments (shipments in millions of units)

Region2018
Shipments
2018 Market
Share
2023
Shipments*
2023 Market
Share*
2018-2023
CAGR*
North America39.022.2%87.226.2%17.4%
Rest of World136.877.8%245.773.8%12.4%
Total175.8100.0%332.9100.0%13.6%

Source: IDC, Worldwide Used Smartphone Forecast, 2019–2023, Dec 2019.

Table Notes: Data is subject to change.
* Forecast projections.

Says Will Stofega, program director, Mobile Phones: “Although drivers such as regulatory compliance and environmental initiatives are still positively impacting the growth in the used market, the importance of cost-saving for new devices will continue to drive growth. Overall, we feel that the ability to use a previously owned device to fund the purchase of either a new or used device will play the most crucial role in the growth of the refurbished phone market. Trade-in combined with the increase in financing plans (EIP) will ultimately be the two main drivers of the refurbished phone market moving forward.”

According to IDC’s taxonomy, a refurbished smartphone is a device that has been used and disposed of at a collection point by its owner. Once the device has been examined and classified as suitable for refurbishment, it is sent off to a facility for reconditioning and is eventually sold via a secondary market channel. A refurbished smartphone is not a “hand me down” or gained as the result of a person-to-person sale or trade.

The IDC report, Worldwide Used Smartphone Forecast, 2019–2023 (Doc #US45726219), provides an overview and five-year forecast of the worldwide refurbished phone market and its expansion and growth by 2023. This study also provides a look at key players and the impact they will have on vendors, carriers, and consumers.

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Customers and ‘super apps’ will shape travel in 2020s

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Customers will take far more control of their travel experience in the 2020s, according to a 2020 Trends report released this week by Travelport, a leading technology company serving the global travel industry.

Through independent research with thousands of global travellers – including 500 in South Africa – hundreds of travel professionals and interviews with leaders of some of the world’s biggest travel brands, Travelport uncovered the major forces that will become the technology enablers of travel over the next decade. These include:

Customers in control

Several trends highlight the finding that customers are moving towards self-service options, with 61% of the travellers surveyed in South Africa preferring to hear about travel disruption via digital communications, such as push notifications on an app, mobile chatbots, or instant messaging apps, rather than speaking with a person on the phone. This is especially important when it comes to young travellers under 25, seen as the future business traveler, and managing their high expectations through technology.

Mobile takeover

With the threat of super app domination, online travel agencies must disrupt or risk being disrupted. Contextual messaging across the journey will help. Super app tech giants like WeChat give their users a one-stop shop to communicate, shop online, book travel, bank, find a date, get food delivery, and pay for anything within a single, unified smartphone app. Travel brands that want to deliver holistic mobile customer experiences need to think about how they engage travellers within these super apps as well as in their own mobile channels.

Retail accelerated

In the next year, research shows, we will see an accelerated rate of change in the way travel is retailed and purchased online. This includes wider and more complex multi-content reach, more enriched and comparable offerings, more focus on relevance than magnitude, and an increase in automation that enables customer self-service.

“How customers engage with their travel experience – for instance by interacting with digital ‘bots’ and expecting offers better personalised to their needs – is changing rapidly,” says Adrian Roodt, country manager for Southern Africa at Travelport. “We in the travel industry need to understand and keep pace with these forces to make sure we’re continuing to make the experience of buying and managing travel continually better, for everyone.”

Read the full 2020 Trends report here: 2020 Trends hub.

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