What just happened? Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a low-cost external antenna array that could significantly amplify wireless signals. With wireless devices getting smaller every day, this could be a viable solution to a real problem.

The project, dubbed RFocus, is described as a “smart surface” consisting of more than 3,000 tiny antennas. Each software-controlled antenna on the two-dimensional surface can either let a wireless signal through or reflect it, depending on what is deemed as the best way to maximize signal strength.

In testing, the team was able to improve the average signal strength by nearly 10x.

Best yet, the platform is very cost-efficient as the antennas only sell for a few pennies each. MIT said they’re able to source them for so cheap because they don’t actually do any signal processing; they simply manipulate how the signal is reflected.

According to Venkat Arun, the project's lead author, it features the largest number of antennas ever assembled for a single communication link. I recall steaming startup Aereo utilized massive arrays of antennas, too, but I suppose that wasn’t just for a single communication link.

The researchers didn’t lay out any commercialization plans but said the most valuable use cases could be in network-connected homes and factories of the future. Tech like this may also be useful in conquering some of the shortcomings of 5G.