Forget WiFi, Here Comes LiFi

by Matt Klassen on September 17, 2015

Since the discovery of fire, humans have used light as a way of communicating, and although we’ve put the need for signal fires behind us, light stands poised to play a significant role in future digital communication technologies as well. As a way of expanding of functionality of Wi-Fi technology, researchers continue to experiment with the concept of using light as a vehicle for data transmission, potentially replacing radio waves as the method for connecting every gizmo and gadget in our growing IoT existence.

While seemingly still years away from commercial viability, the emergence of so-called Li-Fi (light fidelity) technologies that utilize visible light spectrums to communicate data between Internet connected devices offer a tantalizing glimpse at the possible future of wireless networking.

In fact, researchers at Disney recently unveiled Linux Light Bulbs, Li-Fi connected light sources that have the ability to communicate with each other, as well as other Li-Fi compatible devices like toys, wearables, and connected clothes. While the technology has significant hurdles to overcome, it does at least offer the possibility of another wireless technology that could conceivably power the future of the Internet of Things.

Granted there is nothing particularly new about visible light communication (VLC), except now researchers have found ways to bring the possibility of wireless networking to the tertiary technology. In fact, researchers are touting the benefits of light-based networking as the future of IoT, for no other reason that every connected house or business already has light bulbs, using these to connect every gizmo and doodad should, in theory, be a relatively simple process, as opposed to Wi-Fi, which needs specialized equipment, installation and maintenance.

“Since LED represents the future of commercial lighting, developers are suggesting that VLC capabilities could easily be enabled in existing homes and businesses without the need for expensive extraneous systems,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said.

“On the IoT side, VLC would provide an easy way of connecting endpoint sensors to back-end systems without needing to build expensive, dedicated networks,” he pointed out.

So why hasn’t Li-Fi replaced Wi-Fi? What is preventing VLC technology from dominating the Internet of Things? The simple answer: data speeds and line of sight. According to the Disney report, the throughput of the Li-Fi network was woefully slow, maxing out at 1 kilobit per second, speeds more like dial-up connections of old.

Not only that, but light-based communication is dependant on the physical limitations of visible light, meaning that in order to communicate objects would need to be in line of sight with the network router (in this case, a light bulb).

All that to say, there may come a day when your next wireless  router is your desk lamp, as VLC does offer some intriguing opportunities for networking objects in our connected everything existence, but that day isn’t here yet…in fact it still seems a long ways off.

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