Engineers have developed printable metal tags that could be attached to everyday objects and turn them into “smart” Internet of Things devices.

Copper tags for better future

The metal tags are made from patterns of copper foil printed onto thin, flexible, paper-like substrates and are made to reflect WiFi signals. The tags work essentially like “mirrors” that reflect radio signals from a WiFi router. When a user’s finger touches these mirrors, it disturbs the reflected WiFi signals in such a way that can be remotely sensed by a WiFi receiver, like a smartphone.

The tags can be tacked onto plain objects that people touch and interact with every day, like water bottles, walls or doors. These plain objects then essentially become smart, connected devices that can signal a WiFi device whenever a user interacts with them. The tags can also be fashioned into thin keypads or smart home control panels that can be used to remotely operate WiFi-connected speakers, smart lights and other Internet of Things appliances.

Internet of Things makes life easier!

“Our vision is to expand the Internet of Things to go beyond just connecting smartphones, smartwatches and other high-end devices,” said senior author Xinyu Zhang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and member of the Center for Wireless Communications at UC San Diego. “We’re developing low-cost, battery-free, chipless, printable sensors that can include everyday objects as part of the Internet of Things.”

The tags have no batteries, silicon chips, or any discrete electronic components, so they require hardly any maintenance – no batteries to change, no circuits to fix.

Future applications

On a broader scope, Zhang envisions using LiveTag technology to track human interaction with everyday objects. For example, LiveTag could potentially be used as an inexpensive way to assess the recovery of patients who have suffered from stroke.

“When patients return home, they could use this technology to provide data on their motor activity based on how they interact with everyday objects at home — whether they are opening or closing doors in a normal way, or if they are able to pick up bottles of water, for example. The amount, intensity and frequency of their activities could be logged and sent to their doctors to evaluate their recovery,” said Zhang. “And this can all be done in the comfort of their own homes rather than having to keep going back to the clinic for frequent motor activity testing,” he added.

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