Design Engineering

Wearable cameras finally get the HD treatment



UW team’s low-power prototype can stream 720p HD videos at 10 frames per second to a device, like a laptop, up to 14 feet away.

wearable camera

This low-power, video-streaming prototype could be used in next-generation wearable cameras, as well as in many other internet-connected devices.Dennis Wise/University of Washington.

When it comes to wearable cameras, the current models available don’t always have the most advanced capabilities. Sure, they can share live video of anything from a show to a surgery, but there are some significant limitations.

For the most part, today’s streaming cameras first process and compress the video before transmitting it through Wi-Fi, which usually consumes a lot of power and even more so when the video is in HD. Lightweight streaming cameras are out of the question.

Engineers at the University of Washington have found a new method that enables HD video streaming without the device needing to be plugged in. With properties similar to a smartphone, the team’s prototype processes the video instead. They use a technique called a backscatter, through which a device can share information by reflecting signals that have been transmitted to it.

The UW prototype eliminates the need for all these components by using a nearby smartphone—the pixels in the camera are directly connected to the antenna, sending intensity values via backscatter to a phone where it can process the video instead.


The system translates the pixel information from each frame into a series of pulses where the width of each pulse represents a pixel value. The time duration of the pulse is proportional to the brightness of the pixel.

“It’s sort of similar to how the cells in the brain communicate with each other,” said co-author Joshua Smith, a professor in the Allen School and the UW Department of Electrical Engineering. “Neurons are either signaling or they’re not, so the information is encoded in the timing of their action potentials.”

In order to test the prototype, the team converted HD YouTube videos into raw pixel data, then fed the pixels into their backscatter system. Their design could stream 720p HD videos at 10 frames per second to a device up to 14 feet away. The design still uses a small battery but consumes significantly less power than current streaming systems. The team hopes that future iterations will be battery-free.

UW wearable cameras

The UW team’s low-power prototype can stream 720p HD videos at 10 frames per second to a device, like a laptop, up to 14 feet away. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, is excited the UW research team is at the forefront of the low-power video-streaming field and its impact on the industry.

“This video technology has the potential to transform the industry as we know it. Cameras are critical for a number of internet-connected applications, but so far they have been constrained by their power consumption,” he said.

This technology has been licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a Seattle-based startup founded by a team of UW researchers, including Gollakota, Smith and Vamsi Talla, a recent UW alum and co-author on this paper.



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