No-Battery HD Video Streaming Does It with Backscatter

What if Google Glass didn’t have a battery? That’s not too far fetched. This battery-free HD video streaming camera could be built into a pair of eyeglass frames to stream HD video to a nearby phone or other receiver using no bulky batteries or external power source. Researchers at the University of Washington are using backscatter to pull this off.

The problem is that a camera which streams HD video wirelessly to a receiver consumes over 1 watt due to the need for a digital processor and transmitter. The researchers have separated the processing hardware into the receiving unit. They then send the analog pixels from the camera sensor directly to backscatter hardware. Backscatter involves reflecting received waves back to where they came from. By adding the video signal to those reflected waves, they eliminated the need for the power-hungry transmitter. The full details are in their paper (PDF), but here are the highlights.

Battery-free camera design approach

On the camera side, the pixel voltages (CAM Out) are an analog signal which is fed into a comparator along with a triangular waveform. Wherever the triangle wave’s voltage is lower than the pixel voltage, the comparator outputs a 0, otherwise, it outputs a 1. In this way, the pixel voltage is converted to different pulse widths. The triangular waveform’s minimum and maximum voltages are selected such that they cover the full possible range of the camera voltages.

The sub-carrier modulation with the XOR gate in the diagram is there to address the problem of self-interference. This is unwanted interference from the transmitter of the same frequency as the carrier. And so the PWM output is converted to a different frequency using a sub-carrier. The receiver can then filter out the interference. The XOR gate is actually part of an FPGA which also inserts frame and line synchronization patterns.

They tested two different implementations with this circuit design, a 112 x 112 grayscale one at up to 13 frames per second (fps) and an HD one. Unfortunately, no HD camera on the market gives access to the raw analog pixel outputs so they took HD video from a laptop using USB and ran that through a DAC and then into their PWM converter. The USB limited it to 10 fps.

The result is that video streaming at 720p and 10 fps uses as low as 250 μW and can be backscattered up to sixteen feet. They also simulated an ASIC which achieved 720p and 1080p at 60 fps using 321 μW and 806 μW respectively. See the video below for an animated explanation and a demonstration. The resulting video is quite impressive for passive power only.

If the University of Washington seems familiar in the context of backscatter, that’s because we’ve previously covered their battery-free (almost) cell phone. Though they’re not the only ones experimenting with it. Here’s where backscatter is being used for a soil network. All of this involves power harvesting, and now’s a great time to start brushing up on these concepts and building your own prototypes. The Hackaday Prize includes a Power Harvesting Challenge this year.

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Turn that Pi Zero into a Streaming Camera, Step-by-Step

What makes [mwagner1]’s Raspberry Pi Zero-based WiFi camera project noteworthy isn’t so much the fact that he’s used the hardware to make a streaming camera, but that he’s taken care to document every step in the process from soldering to software installation. Having everything in one place makes it easier for curious hobbyists to get those Pi units out of a drawer and into a project. In fact, with the release of the Pi Zero W, [mwagner1]’s guide has become even simpler since the Pi Zero W now includes WiFi.

Using a Raspberry Pi as the basis for a WiFi camera isn’t new, but it is a project that combines many different areas of knowledge that can be easy for more experienced people to take for granted. That’s what makes it a good candidate for a step-by-step guide; a hobbyist looking to use their Pi Zero in a project may have incomplete knowledge of any number of the different elements involved in embedding a Pi such as basic soldering, how to provide appropriate battery power, or how to install and configure the required software. [mwagner1] plans to use the camera as part of a home security system, so stay tuned.

If Pi Zero camera projects catch your interest but you want something more involved, be sure to check out the PolaPi project for a fun, well-designed take on a Pi Zero based Polaroid-inspired camera.