Acoustic Mirrors: How to Find Planes without RADAR

A lot of science museums and parks feature something called an acoustic mirror. The one at Houston’s Discovery Green park is called the listening vessels. [Doug Hollis] created two acoustic mirrors 70 feet apart, pointing at each other. If you stand or sit near one of the vessels, you can hear a whisper from someone near the other vessel. The limestone installations (see right) are concave and focus sound like a parabolic mirror will focus light.

mirrorJust a science curiosity, right? Maybe today, but not always. The story of these devices runs through World War II and is an object lesson in how new technology requires new ways of thinking about things.

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Millimeter Wave RADAR Tracks Gestures

If we believe science fiction — from Minority Report to Iron Man, to TekWar — the future of computer interfaces belongs to gestures. There are many ways to read gestures, although often they require some sort of glove or IR emitter, which makes them less handy (no pun intended).

Some, like the Leap Motion, have not proved popular for a variety of reasons. Soli (From Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group) is a gesture sensor that uses millimeter-wave RADAR. The device emits a broad radio beam and then collects information including return time, energy, and frequency shift to gain an understanding about the position and movement of objects in the field. You can see a video about the device, below.

You naturally think of using optical technology to look at hand gestures (the same way humans do). However, RADAR has some advantages. It is insensitive to light and can transmit through plastic materials, for example. The Soli system operates at 60 GHz, with sensors that use Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) and Direct-Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS). The inclusion of multiple beamforming antennas means the device has no moving parts.

Clearly, this is cutting-edge gear and not readily available yet. But the good news is that Infineon is slated to bring the sensors to market sometime this year. Planned early applications include a smart watch and a speaker that both respond to gestures using the technology.

Interestingly, the Soli processing stack is supposed to be RADAR agnostic. We haven’t investigated it, but we wonder if you could use the stack to process other kinds of sensor input that might be more hacker friendly? Barring that, we’d love to see what our community could come up with for solving the same problem.

We’ve seen Raspberry Pi daughter-boards (ok, hats) that recognize gestures used to control TVs. We’ve even built some crude gesture sensing using SONAR, if that gives you any ideas. Are you planning on using Soli? Or rolling your own super gesture sensor? Let us know and document your project for everyone over on

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Visualization of a Phased Array Antenna System

Phased array antenna systems are at the cusp of ubiquity. We now see Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) antenna systems on WiFi routers. Soon phased array weather radar systems will help to predict the weather and keep air travel safe, and phased array base stations will be the backbone of 5G which is the next generation of wireless data communication.  But what is a phased array antenna system?  How do they work?  With the help of 1024 LEDs we’ll show you.

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RadarCat Gives Computers A Sense of Touch

So far, humans have had the edge in the ability to identify objects by touch. but not for long. Using Google’s Project Soli, a miniature radar that detects the subtlest of gesture inputs, the [St. Andrews Computer Human Interaction group (SACHI)] at the University of St. Andrews have developed a new platform, named RadarCat, that uses the chip to identify materials, as if by touch.

Realizing that different materials return unique radar signals to the chip, the [SACHI] team combined it with their recognition software and machine learning processes that enables RadarCat to identify a range of materials with accuracy in real time! It can also display additional information about the object, such as nutritional information in the case of food, or product information for consumer electronics. The video displays how RadarCat has already learned an impressive range of materials, and even specific body parts. Can Skynet be far behind?

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World’s Tiniest Violin Uses Radar and Machine Learning

The folks at [Design I/O] have come up with a way for you to play the world’s tiniest violin by rubbing your fingers together and actually have it play a violin sound. For those who don’t know, when you want to express mock sympathy for someone’s complaints you can rub your thumb and index finger together and say “You hear that? It’s the world’s smallest violin and it’s playing just for you”, except that now they can actually hear the violin, while your gestures control the volume and playback.

[Design I/O] combined a few technologies to accomplish this. The first is Google’s Project Soli, a tiny radar on a chip. Project Soli’s goal is to do away with physical controls by using a miniature radar for doing touchless gesture interactions. Sliding your thumb across the side of your outstretched index finger, for example, can be interpreted as moving a slider to change the numerical value of something, perhaps turning up the air conditioner in your car. Check out Google’s cool demo video of their radar and gestures below.

Project Soli’s radar is the input side for this other intriguing technology: the Wekinator, a free open source machine learning software intended for artists and musicians. The examples on their website paint an exciting picture. You give Wekinator inputs and outputs and then tell it to train its model.

The output side in this case is violin music. The input is whatever the radar detects. Wekinator does the heavy lifting for you, just give it input like radar monitored finger movements, and it’ll learn your chosen gestures and perform the appropriately trained output.

[Design I/O] is likely doing more than just using Wekinator’s front end as they’re also using openFrameworks, an open source C++ toolkit. Also interesting with Wekinator is their use of the Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol for communicating over the network to get its inputs and outputs. You can see [Design I/O]’s end result demonstrated in the video below.

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See Actual Microwaves — No More Faking It

Last week we saw a lot of interest in faux visualization of wireless signals. It used a tablet as an interface device to show you what the wireless signals around you looked like and was kind of impressive if you squinted your eyes and didn’t think too much about it. But for me it was disappointing because I know it is actually possible to see what radio waves look like. In this post I will show you how to actually do it by modifying a coffee can radar which you can build at home.

The late great Prof. David Staelin from MIT once told me once that, ‘if you make a new instrument and point it at nature you will learn something new.’ Of all the things I’ve pointed Coffee Can Radars at, one of the most interesting thus far is the direct measurement and visualization of 2.4 GHz radiation which is in use in our WiFi, cordless phones (if you still have one) and many other consumer goods. There is no need to fool yourself with fake visualizations when you can do it for real.

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Arduino Radar Watches You Breathe

We’ve all likely watched an episode of “Star Trek” and admired the level of integration on the sick bay diagnostic bed. With its suite of wireless sensors and flat panel display, even the 1960s imagining of the future blows away the decidedly wired experience of a modern day ICU stay. But we may be getting closer to [Dr. McCoy]’s experience with this radar-based respiration detector.

[Øyvind]’s build, which takes the origin of the term “breadboard” to heart, is based on a not-inexpensive Xethru module, which appears to be purpose-built for detecting respiration. The extra-thick PC board seems to house the waveguides internally, which is a neat trick but might limit how the module can be deployed. The module requires both a USB interface and level shifter to interface the 2.8V levels of the module to the 5V Arduino Uno. In the video below, [Øyvind]’s prototype simply lights an RGB LED in response to the chest movement it detects, but there’s plenty of potential for development here. We’ve seen a laser-based baby breathing monitor before; perhaps this systems could be used to the same end without the risk of blinding your tyke. Or perhaps better diagnostics for sleep apnea patients than an intrusive night in a sleep study lab.

Clocking in at $750USD for the sensor board and USB interface, this build is not exactly for the faint of heart or the light of wallet. But as an off-the-shelf solution to a specific need that also has a fair bit of hacking potential, it may be just the thing for someone. Of course if radar is your thing, you might rather go big and build something that can see through walls.

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