The internet of light: Oledcomm's li-fi transmittor hooked up to my laptop. Image: Author
For a few years now, engineers and scientists have tinkered with an alternative to wi-fi that utilizes not radio waves, but light: specifically, light from light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Yeah, it's an internet of light, or maybe LEDnet, as if we needed another buzz phrase. This quietly gestating technology, li-fi—unlike wi-fi, it's an actual abbreviation, for light fidelity—may be ready for a serious look.
Not only did a recent New International market forecast predict that the li-fi industry would be worth $6 billion in less than five years; li-fi devices debuted at CES this year allowed users to both establish an internet connection via light waves, and, in an arguably more intriguing application, to use an app to transmit data directly from lights outfitted with the technology. And now, for the first time, there's even a li-fi smart phone.
The li-fi transmitter, developed by the French company Oledcomm, could leave QR codes in the dust. Instead of sending you to a link to a designated page online, with li-fi, you hold your iPhone up to a lamp and instantly play a video or read a file. If that sounds far-fetched, it's not—any LED bulb can be converted to transmit li-fi signals with a single microchip.
And the technology is ready right now; it's being installed in museums and businesses across France, and is being embraced by EDF, one of the nation's largest utilities. Meanwhile, the wireless internet access shows promise, too—it could eventually prove faster than wi-fi, and it's more secure. Since light doesn't pass through solid objects like radio waves do, only users in the line of sight can link up.
"It is a new way of communication," Cedric Mayer, co-founder of Oledcomm, said. He says the government is already interested in the technology, because lighting is cheap, and because it emits no radiation—a genuine political concern in Europe, if not here in the states.
Li-fi works by harnessing the visible light spectrum to deliver data, in rapid fire bursts that go unseen by the human eye. The prototype transmitter Oledcomm had on display wasn't blazing fast by any means—I hooked up my laptop and tested the speed, and it checked out at around 4 mbs, which is pretty standard for the clogged network at CES. It was hard to deny the tiny thrill of watching a lamp create my internet connection, however.
Oledcomm isn't by any means the pioneer in this arena—UK and Chinese scientists have proven that ultra-fast li-fi data transfer is possible, and there's already a li-fi consortium established to help guide the industry. The term 'li-fi' itself was coined by the University of Edinburgh's Harold Hass in a 2011 TED talk.
But Oledcomm, in conjunction with SunPartner Technologies, is certainly the first to produce a li-fi smartphone prototype—it's outfitted with a transparent photovoltaic screen that lets light recharge the phone as it connects it to the internet. That's fairly wild: the screen is a solar panel that can generate electricity and transmit data through light.
Now, we won't need the li-fi smartphone to be able to download goodies from li-fi-enabled LED—our extant smartphone cameras can detect the signal with ease, as I found in a hands-on test—but it made the process more seamless. You stick the phone under the light, and you get a video. Or an image. Or a GPS coordinate. The tech clearly has potential in both commercial and public arenas—brands will want to use li-fi to beam in advertisements, while cities could, say, transmit schedule information at bus stops.
And the idea of a phone that runs on light in every sense of the word is alluring to be sure. SunPartner's head of business development, Matthieu de Broca, claims the solar paneled li-fi smartphone will never lose charge in daylight, at all.
"The solar adds fifteen percent efficiency," he said, and added that the photovoltaic screen will keep an iPhone juiced in perpetuity as long as the sun's shining.
There are obviously still myriad obstacles to the widespread adoption of li-fi. For one, it's less convenient than its less restricted wi-fi competition. Oledcomm wouldn't disclose how much investment it had actually attracted, or the precise nature of its dealings with EDF, so it's hard to know what sort of scale to expect from France's purported li-fi push. The whole project could well yet fizzle. It's nonetheless an alluring prospect: I watched the cold, dull light instantaneously transmit data to the phone in my hand, and I couldn't help but feel a hint of a rarified sensation amidst the techno-cacophony of CES—that I was beaming down at least a small sliver of the future.