December 1, 2015
During 2016, we can all expect to be hearing a lot more about a new technology called Li-Fi, which uses light to transmit high speed data. Li-Fi has already been trialled extensively in lab conditions and now for the first time it has been installed in an office in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. It may even be substantially quicker than standard Wi-Fi. The people behind it claim it is already able to transmit data at a rate of 1 GB per second, which is around 100 times faster than Wi-Fi. Using light as a medium, however, does mean its main drawback is that it cannot penetrate walls. Designers and managers may also have concerns that the way it transmits data – basically by flickering the light from an individual LED like a massively sped up signal lamp (pictured) – but the developers claim this is completely imperceptible to the human eye and so has no consequences for individuals.
The underlying technology has been around for a few years. The idea was first developed by a scientist called Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh in 2011, who demonstrated during a TED Talk that a rapidly flickering LED could transmit binary coded data at a far greater rate than traditional methods of wireless communication. The flickering is completely imperceptible to people, even at a subconscious level.
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The developers also claim that there are even some advantages to Li-Fi’s inability to penetrate walls, not least that it uses the building itself as a firewall to make it harder to tap in to potential confidential information while it is being transmitted. This also means that there is less interference between devices.
Haas has commercialised the technology with a new venture called PureLiFi, although its main product is a plug and play application with a promised capacity of around 11.5 MP per second which is still way below the stated potential of this technology.
The Estonian real world trials are led by a company called Velmenni which has produced a lightbulb that works with Li-Fi technology on a small scale. Their demonstrations claims to have shown data transfer speeds of around 1 GB per second.
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It seems unlikely that this technology will replace Wi-Fi anytime soon. It not only has some major drawbacks but it is also up against a near universally accessible protocol that is already installed in billion of devices, homes, public spaces and offices. Nevertheless its potential is enormous, not least for building designers and managers. According to Haas himself: ‘All we need to do is fit a small microchip to every potential illumination device and this would then combine two basic functionalities: illumination and wireless data transmission. In the future we will not only have 14 billion light bulbs, we may have 14 billion Li-Fis deployed worldwide for a cleaner, greener, and even brighter future.’