LiFi not Wifi: How a new piece of tech could replace traditional hotspots

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It was supposedly Goethe’s last word. It is one of the first in the Bible. And as soon as it is put together with other words it indications smart progression. What are we talking about? Light.

The International Day of Light is on the 16th of May every year. It’s celebrated mainly in professional circles: from physicists, who research the world of optics and photonics, and those interested in physics, who take part in special events, in museums, or participants in sightseeing tours of scientific sites.

The date was proclaimed by UNESCO and commemorates the birth of the laser on 16 May 1960. At that time, American physicist Theodore Maiman had developed the first working laser, still puzzled about what his invention of extremely focused light would be good for. But since then it has had numerous uses. The International Day of Light is not just about lasers, or about microscopy and nano-optics, but also about the latest technologies. It’s about transmitting, storing and processing information via light. And so the Day of Light is also a day of the future of digitisation.

LiFi premiere on 2019’s Day of Light

This year there was excitement afoot on the 19th. It was about LiFi technology (light fidelity). It sounds like WiFi and has to do with it because the LiFi technology could change the way we go on the Internet as much as the development of wireless LAN technology has since the 1990s. According to this idea, Internet data will no longer be wirelessly transmitted via WiFi (wireless fidelity), wireless LAN generated by routers, but via light waves. How this could be done for normal users was presented to the public. Spot on, 37 Caledonian Road, London, United Kingdom.

The address is just a stone’s throw away from the magical track 9 3/4 of King’s Cross Station. There is the renowned Institute of Physics. And there they want to show this Thursday, that data transmission via light is not magic, but that the new wireless technology is already at an office or conference room capacity. What’s behind this innovation? How does LiFi work and what’s its advantage? Are there risks?

LiFi: Internet with light instead of routers

If you do any research about LiFi, you’ll come across Harald Haas. The German physicist and engineer is researching data transmission through light at the University of Edinburgh. It’s about transmitting data via LED light. On the pages of the Institute of Physics, it says: »Data transmitted by light waves is more reliable, virtually interference free and uniquely more secure than radio technologies such as Wi-Fi or cellular«. But why are light waves as data transmitters more reliable, trouble-free and safer than radio technologies such as WiFi or 5G?

LiFi: Light on, light off… It’s binary!

We know it from young children who turn on and off light switches: The faster you switch between light and dark, the less it seems to be dark. In the case of LiFi technology, light is also switched on and off, meaning 1 and 0, and voilà,  the binary signal of the digital data transmission has begun.

Specifically, with a modulator in the transmitter, one light emitting diode (LED), the electrical pulse is turned optical. The receiver sensor is a photodiode that is able to pick up the light and turn it back into electrical voltage.

Of course, the LiFi modulator is x times faster than a lot faster than a child. With data transmission via light, the light source is switched on and off so fast that no human eye could even perceive a flicker. The state changes in a nanosecond, the light remains constantly as bright as you want it. The sensor on a smartphone or laptop, on the other hand, can very well perceive the signal changes. Expanded with a corresponding microchip, theoretically, every LED bulb could become a source of communication at home, in the office, in a street lamp, in a vehicle. LEDs have been around since the abolition of traditional lightbulbs everywhere.

Internet connection via LED

Unlike radio, data transmission by light, as mentioned by the IOP, actually provides greater security: Because who would want to read data transmitted in this way would theoretically have to be receiving the light at the exact same time and place. In addition, this way of transmission can be much faster than the conventional WiFi: Speeds of up to 224 GBPS have been made possible under controlled conditions at Oxford University. One can imagine that the technology would be greener and smarter in the long term than power-consuming radio masts and road-laid optical fibre cables.

Let there be light… And a signal

But the technology has two decisive disadvantages: used in private households, it would turn previous economic behaviour on its head. Accordingly tough so far for the lobby. The second disadvantage: there must be literally no obstacle in between. Light signals and sensors need direct contact to communicate with each other.

 It doesn’t go through walls, hands, and the speed is dependent on the distance between source and receiver. So experts currently see the greatest opportunities for a breakthrough of this innovative technology for industrial production.

LiFi as THE technology for Industry 4.0

For example, the Fraunhofer Institute of Photonic Microsystems in Dresden, Germany, has already developed an infrared transmission system called LiFi GigaDock, that enables smooth data exchange via light at the shortest distance and is thus in the process of revolutionising the manufacturing technology of Industry 4.0. Even more: Mobile robots, who communicate with each other via light signals with LiFi technology, could take over a large part of the previous logistics; Self-driving cars could communicate via the light from their headlights.

Network connections at the speed of light

Harald Haas inaugurated the technology at the IOP with a keynote address. Incidentally, it won’t replace the previous WiFi in the building but complement it. Haas advocates that the technologies complement each other. In any case, by 2020, not just the Institute of Physics, but 50 billion devices worldwide should be capable of being LiFi-enabled and connected, as Haas speculated in an earlier TED talk in September 2015.

Of course, the year 2020 will have to be revised a bit. More people are excited about this than just physicists… And that’s reflected in the views his talk has received. It’s been watched more than 5 million times.

Internet through light is made for IoT

Want to learn about even more digital trends? Then look at our 2019 trend book »Digital DNA«.

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