Imagine a world where an incredibly fast WiFi hotspot is only the flick of a light switch away. It may sound a little far-fetched, perhaps even bordering on the realm of a tale from science-fiction, but that dream may soon become reality if the technology known as LiFi takes off as it’s expected to in the next few years. Right now, we’re all familiar with WiFi. We’re surrounded by it and constantly need it to wirelessly connect to the internet. For all its advantages, though, WiFi has certain drawbacks, one of the biggest being the generally slow speed we tend to experience at the most inopportune times. Almost everyone knows the pains of suffering through a slow WiFi connection, so any solution to that problem would be one worth paying attention to. LiFi may end up being the answer we’re all seeking by offering a much faster connection speed. We’re talking speeds up to 100 times faster than WiFi. Just think of what that could mean for connecting to the web, not to mention the revolution it would inspire within the business community. Simply put, the impact of LiFi could be transformative. Even so, many may believe that the concept sounds too good to be true. Yes, it may sound unrealistically wonderful, but we may be just a few years away from seeing LiFi transmitters entering the home and office.
Think of all the devices we use today that require a connection to the internet. We have laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and more, all constantly using the internet in various ways, but what we’ve seen so far may only be the tip of the iceberg. One study from Cisco predicts that that number of mobile devices around the world could reach an astounding ten billion by 2019. But it’s not just the number of devices connecting to the web that has lead to further demands for faster internet — it’s the amount of data that needs to be transmitted. Today’s infrastructure, while equipped to handle our needs at the moment, will soon find itself unprepared to handle the big data deluge that will come within the next few years (for example, just look at the number of big data vendors right now). According to Cisco, the amount of data being generated could hit 35 quintillion bytes exchanged every single month from mobile devices alone. Combine that with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), where nearly every object we use is connected to the web, and the amount data that needs to be transmitted is staggering. It’s no wonder that a faster solution is needed to handle all that information.
That’s where LiFi comes in. This ingenious technology can turn regular LED lightbulbs into a type of hotspot. LiFi is a Visible Light Communications (VLC) system and works by having an LED light flicker at certain speeds in order to transmit data. Perhaps one of the best ways to describe how it works is to compare it to an ultra-fast Morse code, where the different flickers work to communicate binary code picked up by a nearby detector. While it may sound like the flickering would get pretty annoying for anyone who happens to be in the room at the time, this flickering is actually imperceptible to the human eye. In other words, it is an unobtrusive way to transmit large amounts of data to the tune of 224 gigabits per second. For those keeping score, that is indeed 100 times faster than WiFi. It would be the equivalent to downloading a full HD movie in just a few seconds.
Of course, the idea of transmitting that much data is such a short amount of time may strike some as fanciful, and for many years it was only considered a theoretical technology. But that theory has since been put into practice, effectively dispelling the idea that it could only work in carefully controlled models. LiFi has recently been proven to work in real world settings, meaning we’re not far from seeing it made commercially available.
LiFi carries with it numerous advantages that are worth talking about. Since the technology works mainly through the common LED lightbulb, it is way to transmit data through very low energy — at least much less than seen in WiFi. There’s also no electromagnetic interference, which makes it a good choice for places where sensitive equipment might be in operation. Hospitals, for example, wouldn’t have to worry about how LiFi would interact with sensitive MRI machines. And since only lightbulbs and microchips are needed, the possibility of converting any light source into a LiFi hotspot is there. Every room in the house could potentially be a LiFi transmitter. Airports would be stacked with hotspots. Sports arenas would be places you could visit without having to worry about what kind of signal you would get. A world filled with billions of such hotspots could very well happen. It’s a game changer in every sense of the phrase.
Any discussion about LiFi also needs to include some of the downsides which can’t be ignored. Since it transmits data through light, it can’t be used outdoors in the sunlight. The impact of that would be that public WiFi likely won’t be replaced any time soon. Once you’re indoors, it’s a much different story, of course, but outdoor internet use will likely be much slower until a more suitable solution can be found. LiFi also can’t pass through walls like WiFi can, which is a major detriment. That means a LED lightbulb with LiFi capabilities would need to be located within every room in a home or building. Despite these challenges, the lure of an amazingly fast internet connection would likely be reason enough for LiFi to spread quickly.
Word is certainly spreading quickly of the breakthrough seen in LiFi technology. The term was first coined in a TED talk back in 2011, and already it is receiving support in the business community. The major brains behind LiFi have formed a startup company called pureLiFi, and in November of 2015, they announced they were partnering with Lucibel, a lighting company based out of France, to pump out products enabled by the new technology. Some of those products, including a ceiling unit and a desktop unit, are already out on the market, though in limited supply. As word of LiFi spreads and people get used to the idea, expect the number of products to multiply and for LiFi to truly come into its own around the world. That could be the case as soon as the end of 2016.
The overall impact this could have would be enormous, to say the least. The two areas that would be the most affected would be the Internet of Things and the rise of big data, as mentioned earlier. LiFi may be the missing ingredient needed for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential. That means a fully connected world where nearly everything we use has some link to the web. At the moment, the amount of data needed to make the IoT work properly is enormous. That data needs to be gathered, transmitted, and stored, and with today’s cloud and WiFi limitations, the IoT is already running into a wall. With LiFi beginning to proliferate, suddenly the Internet of Things won’t have to worry about the time it takes to transmit massive amounts of data all over the world. LiFi enables that data to travel at speeds once thought improbable. Many technologies are touted as ones that will change the way we live, but LiFi, and by extension the IoT, could actually live up to that billing.
The overall effect LiFi could have on other areas shouldn’t be ignored either. WiFi may slowly die out in most areas, and businesses will likely go with the faster option for obvious reasons. Even LiFi’s limitations, like not passing through walls, may work to its advantage. Being contained in close quarter means transmitting data would be more secure and less likely to get intercepted or leaked. LiFi may even change the way we use mobile devices. A recent report indicates Apple may be trying to include LiFi capabilities in future iPhones. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but when Apple is looking into a revolutionary technology, that should raise more than a few eyebrows. As the world turns to a more data-driven society, other technologies like software defined storage and LiFi will play key roles in ensuring that the pace of data transmission is rapid and uninterrupted. The future of technology may be right at our doorstep without us even knowing it.