LiFi, an emerging wireless technology, which empowers users to send and receive data in beams of LED light, is expected to help overcome the limitations of radio frequency transmissions. Wireless data has become essential for much of today’s work and lifestyles. As the demand for connected devices continues to increase and new technologies — such as autonomous operations, the internet of things, and virtual reality (VR) — the need for wireless connectivity is expected to grow exponentially.
However, there’s a dilemma. The radio spectrum upon which most of our connectivity depends is becoming crowded. Some engineers and analysts are concerned that our insatiable appetite for data will lead to a “spectrum crunch” that will soon crash our communications networks, making many of our fancy new technologies useless.
This means finding new levels of data bandwidth is a priority. One sector that is gaining significance is Li-Fi, an upcoming wireless optical networking technology that facilitates data to be transmitted over short distances through the rapid and invisible (to the naked eye) modulation of LED light bulbs.
Pioneered about a decade ago by Edinburgh University’s Prof Harald Haas, the technology has some compelling benefits. To begin, the data spectrum for visible light is 1,000 times more prominent than the RF spectrum, so there’s more space to drive more significant bandwidths and higher data rates. Li-Fi developers have already expressed speeds of 224Gbps in laboratory situations and expect 1Gbps or more– around 100 times speedier than conventional Wi-Fi – to suit the norm.
What’s more, because data can be accommodated within a tight area of illumination, there’s little risk of resistance, and it’s also highly secure: while radio waves enter through walls and can be intercepted, a beam of light is limited.
Haas first grabbed the headlines with the technology, following a 2011 TED talk in which he described how a standard LED lamp could be used to transmit high-resolution video straight to a receiver placed just below the bulb.
Since then, Li-Fi has begun making waves, with several organizations now commercializing the technology and a growing number of supporting research is backing these decisions. Indeed, according to a recent statement from Global Market Insights, the Li-Fi industry is assumed to be worth $75.5bn by 2023.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the principal players in the firm spun-out of Haas’s research, Pure LiFi, launched in 2012. This company has developed several Li-Fi-based hardware peripherals that can upload and download data. As the market has developed, Pure LiFi has shifted its focus to refining the Li-Fi specific features that could be integrated into next-generation smartphones and other connected machines.
Just last year, it used the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to share its capabilities in this field using a modified laptop with a 1-Gbps Li-Fi system.
“We’re focusing on improving the Li-Fi components that will enable anything to talk to everything different,” Pure LiFi CEO Alistair Banham told a leading UK publication. “Our aim has always been to develop the components to enable these important companies to design their Li-Fi systems throughout our light antenna device.”
Banham said that there are now around 189 deployments of the firm’s technology globally and that it’s working with a range of clients, including smartphone firms and major lighting organizations, such as Zumtobel, Lucibel, and Signify (formerly Philips Lighting). Banham recognized a range of potential applications for the technology, including
- Use in “smart,” highly connected offices
- Domestic and consumer applications for high-bandwidth machine-to-machine communications
- To provide local ‘hotspots’ in high-bandwidth areas, such as living rooms and bedrooms
- Location-based services
Additionally, Signify has been working with French supermarket string Carrefour on Li-Fi-based indoor-positioning systems, whereby each LED has a different location code and can interact with a smartphone app to assist users to locate products and promotions.
Despite all of its many benefits, however, light-based communication relies on line of sight to work, and for this purpose, it’s viewed as a complementary technology to surviving wireless solutions rather than a replacement.
“Where we can bring a privilege is in the crowded radio spectrum where we observe the launch of a new wireless LAN standard pretty much every year but disappoint to deliver those data rates in practice because there’s simply so much RF noise and interference out there,” described Pure LiFi co-founder and CTO Mostafa Afgani.
He added: “By offering to shift that information to a different band – the light band – we can now provide a different wireless channel that can deliver those data rates over a medium that is much more stable and can deliver the quoted data rates.”
While improving its technology, Pure LiFi is also playing an active role in developing what it terms the Li-Fi ecosystem, and it has since joined forces with organizations, such as Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, Nokia, Liberty Global and Lucibel to set up the Light Communications Alliance, which strives to ensure collaboration to help spur the market for the technology.
A vital part of the wider Li-Fi community is Oxford University photonics specialist Prof Dominic O’Brien, who has recognized a growing commercial interest in the academic research field in recent years. “There’s a lot more attention, and the interest is at a higher level of commitment, with organizations such as Signify committing a considerable amount of resources to produce this stuff to market,” he told the publication.
One instance of this growing appetite for collaboration is the recently announced ELiot (Enhance Lighting for the Internet of Things) proposal, a €6 million EU-funded effort including, among others, the University of Oxford, Nokia, Signify, and Deutsche Telekom, which is looking at improving mass-market applications for Li-Fi technology.
Talking at the launch of the project in July 2019, Prof Jean-Paul Linnartz, who’s leading Signify’s research into Li-Fi, stated: “Li-Fi can deliver high-speed communication, interference-free with high dependability. The available spectrum can be completely reused in every room. The lighting infrastructure is in an exceptional position to provide wireless connectivity for the rapidly increasing amount of wireless devices in every room.”
Signify is at the forefront of attempts to commercialize Li-Fi technology. In June 2019, it declared the launch of its Truelifi product range, which it claims could be utilized to give 150Mbps connectivity to its lighting units.
Another ambition singled out by O’Brien is the EU-funded WORTECS (Wireless Optical/Radio TErabit Communications) scheme, which is exploring how the incorporation of high-frequency mm-wave radio communications and Li-Fi technology could be used to reach the incredibly high data rate requirements of virtual-reality technology.
O’Brien said that the project (which includes, among others Pure LiFi and Orange) is working on a theory in which separate branches of optical fiber would be taken into each room of a house and applied to direct a narrow beam of light at a terminus. “We can get very high data rates from that because we’re essentially using the data directly from the fiber, which is transmitting at 100Gbps,” he stated.