In the first demo, Raviv Melamed, CEO and cofounder of Vayyar and Walabot, uses the camera on his phone to see through our conference room table and detect the number of fingers he’s holding up beneath the surface. Next, there’s a video of a person walking down a hall and moving behind a barrier; the technology senses the human form even though it’s no longer visible to our eyes. Then comes a clip of vodka being poured past a couple of sensors to determine the purity of the alcohol on a microscopic level.
This superhero-like X-ray vision comes courtesy of a new microchip-based, radio frequency sensor technology. It can be used to analyze and create 3-D images of pretty much anything behind or inside objects (the only thing it can’t “see” through is metal). Radio frequency tech has been around for decades; what makes this chip innovative is that it instantly transforms RF waves into digital output. Radio waves emitted from the chip sense how much of the signal is absorbed by an object in its path. Algorithms can then be applied to the digital data translated from the RF signals and determine all kinds of information about those objects: their density, dimensions, and using software, what those objects actually are.
Though it’s not the first technology capable of turning RF into digital, it’s certainly among the smallest and least expensive—the sensor could fit inside a mobile phone. Vayyar, which created the chip technology and is selling Walabot, is based in Tel Aviv with 36 employees, and has raised $34 million in funding. It’s part of the rapidly evolving imaging technology sector that includes the handheld ultrasound device from Butterfly Network Inc., the space-mapping camera from Matterport, and the security scanner that can detect weapons underneath clothing from the U.K.-based company Radio Physics.
The first application of Vayyar’s chip is medical: It’s being developed to detect tumors in breast tissue. Since it can be produced at a fraction of the cost, and physical size, of today’s solutions, it potentially makes breast cancer screening accessible and affordable to people around the globe.
What else could it be used for? That’s where you come in. Walabot is being released publicly in April so that robot makers and hardware tinkerers can build their own apps for Android, Raspberry Pi, or most any other computer with a USB connection. “Why limit the technology for one startup when you can actually go and allow other people to innovate?” says Melamed, a former Intel executive and Israeli Defense Forces engineer.
Walabot has seemingly endless potential applications. It could be used to analyze your breathing while you sleep, or examine root structures in your garden, or track the speed of cars racing past your house. And when it comes to video gaming, Melamed says this technology is far more accurate than any other single motion sensor currently on the market. It could help untether VR headsets by pairing with sensors placed on the body–perhaps simple bands around players’ arms and legs.
Melamed uses the example of a simple virtual ping-pong match. Right now, the only moving body parts would be the head and a hand, since that’s all that can be tracked. “I want to see your body, I want to see your movement, right?” says Melamed. “You have those other technologies, like accelerometers–the problem with accelerometers is they drift. What we can do with this technology is actually put several sensors on your body and track your body in a room like 5 meters by 5 meters, to the level of a centimeter, and now this is a totally different kind of feeling, I can actually see your limbs and we don’t drift.”
Of course, accelerometer-based technologies like the Gear VR, Oculus Rift, and Google Cardboard have all addressed and continue to minimize the drift issue by applying other sensor-based technologies to their processes—and there are other companies on the market that are attempting to bring the full-body experience to VR via sensors placed on the body. The difference is that RF technology can be deployed for virtual reality pretty successfully without the aid of other devices like accelerometers or magnetometers.
How does Vayyar’s technology differ from something like the Kinect? Well, for one thing, the Kinect is primarily a camera-based optics system, while Vayyar’s system is radio frequency based. Kinect works pretty well in the dark, but radio frequency works without any light. For another, the Kinect offers 30 frames per second, while Melamed claims that Vayyar’s technology can process 100 frames per second.
This breakthrough in imaging tech is what can happen when a successful executive moves on to the next chapter. Melamed was the vice president of Architecture and General Manager of Mobile Wireless at Intel back in 2010, when he asked himself: What’s next? He began looking at medical imaging, which still relies on technology that was developed before mobile computing made chips and sensors low cost and lightweight.
“I started to ask the questions, ‘How come there is no simple, easy-to-use modality that you can bring to people instead of these big machines that cost so much money?” he recalls. “Breast cancer was a huge problem to solve and a big market, so a good combination,” he adds (it’s also an illness that touched his life personally when his mother developed the disease). Melamed decided to apply expertise from both his work inside the Israeli Defense Force 20 years ago and his time at Intel working with high-end communication chips to build a better detection system for breast cancer–and soon realized that the radio transmission-based technology he was developing could be applied to a range of industries and problems. Vayyar was born.
In the lead-up to its April launch, the Walabot team is giving the technology to a handful of leading makers and holding internal hackathons, and studying how people play with the Vayyar chip. “The whole point is to start a community around it and have people kind of play around with it and develop around it,” Melamed says, adding that he hopes developers will share their application code with each other.
Melamed says he believes great innovations occur when people find ways to apply technological breakthroughs in one industry to another—and thinks his work on Vayyar, which combines his experiences in the digital communications world with radio frequency technology, is a prime example of that. “I think a lot of the breakthroughs came when people took one technology from one industry and implemented it in a totally different industry, and that is basically what we are trying to do here,” he says. “I went and looked at what people did in the past, and for the last 30 years people are trying to do breast cancer imaging or any other imaging with radars with radio frequencies–but they kept bouncing into the same problems,” Melemed says. “With the architecture we are using in communication and the things that we are able to do over there, bringing technology from that world into this world, that’s kind of created that breakthrough, the ability to put so many transceivers and such a high-end kind of technology into a small silicon.”
Walabot will be sold in three models—each a bit more powerful than the next—and cost between $149 and $599. It will ship in April when the public developer API also comes available.
It’s currently available for pre-order on the Walabot website.
Update: The API will be available in April but we’ve been informed that the hardware will not come out until June.