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Streetlights at night

Is the light spectrum the next frontier for wireless?

It’s getting pretty clear that we are nearing the limit of our wireless networking technology in its current form. And not just because of the speed of devices. More so, we are simply running out of space within the electromagnetic spectrum for radio waves.

We can inch into other frequencies, like gamma rays, but doing so without creating the Incredible Hulk, or just causing a lot of cancer, might be tricky.

But there is an entire spectrum that is used every day that computers have only begun to tap: visible light. A researcher named Harald Hass is working at the University of Edinburgh to enable computer devices to begin to use light to communicate, according to CNN.  If his plans work out, we may one day dump Wi-Fi for something else, perhaps "Li-Fi," which formally is called VLC, or visible light communications.

Hass says that adding a microchip to a standard LED light can make it blink millions of times per second. Mobile devices with readers could then translate those blinks, essentially ones and zeros, into data. Adding an LED to mobile devices would allow communication in the other direction.

In the world imagined by Hass, every street light could become a high-speed Internet port. The human eye wouldn’t notice the difference. Much the same way movies appear to show solid, moving images because the frames are whizzing by at 24 frames per second,  nobody would be able to tell the difference between a data-enabled light and a standard, always-on bulb.

Of course, there are some problems. Light communication needs constant line-of-site. Radio waves can travel through a lot of substances without a problem, but if someone walks between a Li-Fi device and a receiver, the communication is broken, not to mention the obvious fact that the signal couldn’t travel through walls, or anything that could dampen or stop light from passing.

There is also the potential problem of light pollution, especially in cities where this technology would be most useful. Lots of neon signs and non-communicating lights could interfere with the signal. And what happens if two hubs are close together, or a user is walking from one to the next? How will the handoff take place?

There is probably a ways to go on the idea of Li-Fi replacing standard wireless. But at least this technology can already be demonstrated in a laboratory setting. Could a move to the real world be too far behind?

Posted by John Breeden II on Dec 06, 2012 at 9:39 AM


Reader Comments

Tue, Dec 11, 2012 Ojai, Ca

On the surface, this sounds a lot like it will have the same limitations that the IR communications in our early Laptops. I remember being very frustrated when a print job would fail because my dog walked between my laptop and my printer.

Mon, Dec 10, 2012 Cygnus New York

This is not new. In the 80's there were microwave type radio communications devices that worked using laser in the visible light range. The issues were never overcome. Rain, fog, snow and other atmospherics took it's toll and would disturb the communications path. Hence the invention of fiber optics and the better utilization of radio spectrum.

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