Fancy looking through walls using your phone? Well soon it will be possible using a handheld radar.
The Walabot is a radar unit that attaches to smartphones and can be used to scan the world around you.
While radar-imaging technology typically costs at least thousands of dollars, the cheapest Walabot will cost $149, thanks to Vayyar Imaging shrinking the necessary technology down to a phone-sized system on a chip.
As proof of what the Walabot can do, the Pro version of the device will come with an Android app that can peer through walls — allowing the user to find pipes and wires, for instance.
"Since Walabot can sense minute changes and very small movement, you'll be able to see when pipes are dripping and other problems," said Raviv Melamed, CEO and co-founder of Vayyar Imaging.
The device can see through about 7cm to 10cm of concrete, enough to allow it to look through a typical wall and can penetrate more deeply through less-dense obstacles, such as drywall. Melamed says Walabot can see through almost any material other than metal, which Melamed describes as the Walabot's kryptonite.
But the uses of the technology go far beyond locating a leaking pipe, Melamed foresees a host of applications being developed for the device after it launches at the end of April. These apps will not only take advantage of Walabot's ability to "see" through solid objects, but to track people and objects in 3D space.
For instance, collision detection and avoidance in vehicles — with a Walabot-connected app letting you know when you get too close to the car in front.
"You could put this on the dashboard connected to your phone and get an alert."
Smart homes could be another potential use, with the Walabot providing the imaging for an app that watches over people and things. The Walabot attaches to the back of the phone via magnets but it could be attached to any metallic surface in a home, such as a fridge or air-conditioning unit, and paired with a small computer such as the Raspberry Pi. Melamed gives the example of how the technology could help an app spot when an elderly person had had a fall and was unable to move.
"People fall in their bedroom or in the shower and these are places where you cannot put cameras. For example, I would love to have something that tracked my mother or father without compromising their privacy."
If the Walabot is pointing at a person the device is sensitive enough that it can track a person's breathing, for instance, letting you know if someone is in a particular room. That person's breathing is detected by measuring the movement of the person's chest, which the Walabot captures by detecting radio waves that it bounces off the person's body. When used in open space, the Walabot can detect people and things over a range of about four to five metres.
The device is even sensitive enough to measure a person's heartbeat, said Melamed, by detecting blood vessels pulsing under the surface of the skin.
These are some of the obvious uses for Walabot, but Melamed says "there are so many things you can do with this technology", which Vayyar Imaging hopes will emerge once developers get their hands on the device.
"You could do a lot of things with Walabot and there are a lot of smart people out there who should come up with some crazy ideas to play around with."
Developers are already coming up with ideas Vayyar Imaging would never have thought of - for example, someone from Norway plans to use it to check which logs will burn best in their fireplace by scanning them to detect differing moisture levels. Another developer wants to use Walabot to measure the speed of his kicks when he practices martial arts.
"You can just go wild with it," said Melamed.
One of the most difficult things to see through is human skin, according to Vayyar Imaging. Even though the technology Walabot relies on was originally developed to detect breast cancer, Walabot's makers don't recommend using the device to carry out medical examinations.
"Walabot is not a medical tool, it's mainly for makers to play around with."
When it comes to safety, the electromagnetic frequency of Walabot's radar is "close to that" typically used by wi-fi, said Melamed, but "we are sending signals using more than 1,000-times less power than your wi-fi".
What is the Walabot?
While Walabot's imaging capabilities may sound similar to those of Microsoft Kinect, the technology works in a fundamentally different way. While the Kinect uses infra-red scanning to map 3D spaces, the Walabot uses radar to detect people and objects. This contrasting approach means the devices have differing strengths. Whereas the Walabot has a higher detection range and can penetrate solid objects, said Melamed, the Kinect can map 3D objects in finer detail, as the resolution of the captured image is higher.
"When you go further away from the Kinect the resolution gets worse. Where Kinect ends, this starts. So these are very complementary."
To get the Walabot's radar technology into a low-cost device the size of a smartphone, Vayyar Imaging developed a "very complex" system-on-a-chip for collecting and handling the radar data. This is paired with a set of algorithms that analyse and make sense of the radar data and also compensate for the distortion caused by Walabot's casing.
Walabot will cost between $149 and $599, depending on the model. The three models differ in the number of antennas and the range of data they make available to developers via an API. Walabot's four APIs will expose various data derived from the radar signals, such as 2D range and direction tracking and movement sensing, as well as, for the top-end model, offering access to the raw radar data and spatial sensing in 3D.
"We're trying to provide a full breadth [of data] so people at all levels can play with it," said Melamed.
The $599 Pro version is aimed at high-end users, such as businesses or research institutions. "Basically it's like a lab that lets you do whatever you want," said Melamed, recommending this model for uses such as collision avoidance, robotic guidance and 3D tracking.
The Walabot will last one to two hours on a single charge and the company are also planning to release a version with an attached battery.
When used with its demo apps, the Walabot can be set up quickly, for example, the Android wall scanning app that comes with the Pro version takes about four seconds to be ready to use.
However, despite shipping with this sample app, the Walabot is primarily aimed at developers who want to build their own applications around it. The Walabot connects to computers and phones via a Micro-USB cable. Various SDKs will be available, initially an Android SDK for the C++/Java programming languages, followed by a C#/VB/C++ SDK for Windows and a C++ SDK for Linux.
The first Walabot devices will ship to Europe from the end of April and the documentation for the API launches today. The Walabot is expected to be available in the US from about mid-May, as the Walabot, while having passed FCC tests, is waiting for official certification.
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Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.