In the office of the future, the luminaires won’t just provide light, they’ll also provide your internet connection.
A new technology called Li-Fi can encode data in the light from normal LED luminaires, turning your office lights into a high-speed data network. It’s done by modulating the light in a way that’s invisible to the human eye, but can be picked up by a receiver plugged into a computer.
Li-Fi is faster than Wi-Fi, more energy efficient (since the lights are on anyway) and eliminates interference problems with other electronic devices. And because light doesn’t go through walls, it’s inherently secure. Plus, the main element of the network – the light fittings – already exists in every building.
Li-Fi could solve a growing problem: we're running out of space on the radio frequency spectrum"
The technology could also solve a growing problem with wireless communication systems: the radio frequency spectrum is overcrowded and we’re running out of space. The visible light spectrum is 10,000 times bigger, so Li-Fi is well placed to become the next generation of wireless communications.
One of the companies pioneering the technology is Edinburgh-based PureLiFi, which last year received a £1.5 million ($2.2 million) venture capital investment, valuing the firm at £14 million ($20.7 million).
PureLiFi’s co-founder and chief science officer Professor Harald Haas says: ‘Twenty-five years from now, the LED light bulb will serve thousands of applications and will be an integral part of the emerging smart cities, smart homes and the internet of things.’
The company has completed the first phase of a groundbreaking Li-Fi trial at the Business Academy Bexley in Kent, which Haas says generated ‘tremendous excitement’ among students. It has now launched a commercial Li-Fi network system, Li-Flame, which it demonstrated recently at a major mobile technology show in Barcelona.
To use Li-Flame, you need to attach Li-Fi access points to the luminaires in your ceiling, to encode data into the light.
In practice, not all the data is actually carried in visible light – the ‘uplink’ from your computer back to the access point comes from an infrared transmitter that you plug into a USB port.
PureLiFi says the system can be used seamlessly with mobile and Wi-Fi systems, so you can wander between them without your session being interrupted. This means Li-Fi could complement existing networks, rather than users having to choose one or the other.
Haas believes the technology will change the face of wireless communications – not to mention changing the face of the lighting market.
‘Li-Fi is the catalyst for the inevitable merger of the lighting and wireless communications industries,’ he says. ‘It’s a communications technology that relies on and encourages bespoke lighting design. We believe there is an impending shift away from lighting products to lighting solutions that are fundamentally a means of addressing the customer’s requirements.’
And as our appetite for sending data back and forth continues to grow with every new technological innovation, it’s looking increasingly likely that technologies like Li-Fi will have to step in to keep us connected.