What Happened to LiFi?
LiFi looked like a promising idea when it was introduced in 2011.
After 10 years, LiFi equipment still isn't available at your local electronics store.
What's happened to LiFi over the last 10 years?
It’s been more than a decade since the term LiFi was introduced to the world during a Ted Talks. The technology seemed like the next big thing for personal electronic manufacturers to adopt, but that hasn’t been the case. In the 10 years since the TedTalks, there have been no LiFi ready laptops or smartphones produced. Search the term LiFi at BestBuy.com ($BBY), and the website returns a LifeProof iPhone case. The same search on Amazon.com ($AMZN) returns a Kindle Book about the 100 most popular wireless networks, and a search on Walmart.com ($WMT) returns Life cereal. The technology looked so promising in 2011, so what happened to LiFi?
What is LiFi
The term LiFi was introduced to the world by Dr. Harald Haas, a German physicist of the University of Edinburgh. During his TedTalks in 2011, Dr. Haas previewed the technology he had been working on. The technology allowed the transfer of data through light.
Think of a typical home WiFi system. Now put everything that the WiFi does in a light bulb, and that’s a simple way of thinking about what LiFi is. By making small modifications to an LED bulb, when turned on, the LED bulb can pass data to a receiver, and that receiver will interpret the information and display it on a TV screen, phone screen, or computer screen.
When initially introduced by Dr. Haas, he believed that LiFi Technology could be more energy efficient than what we had in place. He also believed LiFi could lighten the load carried by WiFi, because the light spectrum is 10,000 times greater than the radio waves spectrum used by WiFi. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, and people were forced to shelter in place, the global internet infrastructure came into question. With millions of people home at the same time, and streaming video and music non stop, Netflix ($NFLX), Sony ($SONY) and a few others reduced the quality of their video streams in order to prevent internet networks from overloading. A problem that could have been avoided had LiFi infrastructure been in place.
How Does it Work
Using an LED bulb outfitted with a chip, the light turns on and off at speeds so fast that it isn't noticeable to the eye. As the light turns off and on, data is transferred and picked up by a photo detector, then the detector reads the data being transmitted from the light bulb. The TV remote is similar, in that it transfers data via light, but TV remotes use infrared light. The infrared light in a remote turns on and off repeatedly, and transfers data to the receiver inside the television. The TV remote transfers a serial data stream of ones and zeros, whereas LiFi sends a paralleled data stream of ones and zeros. The data coming from a TV remote is like the water stream coming from a water gun you would find at a 99 cents store, and the data coming from a LiFi bulb is like water shooting out of a fire-fighter’s hose.
With LiFi, data can't be transferred when the light is off. This presents a problem for anyone who likes to spend a few minutes on TikTok right before going to bed. But by using light dimmers, the light can be dimmed to the point where it appears that it is off, which will allow for the flow of data in the dark.
Where Has LiFi Been Since The Ted Talks
In his 2011 Ted Talks, Dr. Haas mentioned that in order to fully exploit the light spectrum with LiFi, advanced transmitters and receivers were needed. LiFi represented a new take on data transfer, and because of that it required an infrastructure that wasn't in place in 2011. That lack of infrastructure is why we haven't seen LiFi systems in BestBuy yet. The last 10 years was also spent educating the markets about the technology, which has resulted in large companies like Samsung and Panasonic exploring LiFi enabled technology. According to LiFi.co, Samsung currently holds the most LiFi related patents.
Though the average consumer hasn’t been able to buy a LiFi setup, the technology is being implemented. In 2016, Oledcomm, a firm in Paris, won the right to outfit several Paris subways with LiFi. In 2021, pureLiFi, a company based in Scotland, was called on by the U.S. Army twice to supply it with LiFi technology. If the last 10 years was about getting the word out on LiFi, the next 10 years will hopefully be about adopting and adapting the technology to meet everyday needs.
Does the World Need Another Way to Access the Internet
Twenty five years ago, there were very few items that required internet bandwidth. For homes that were on the internet, those homes were logging on with a desktop computer, there were no smartphones or smart devices, and movie streaming didn’t exist. Today, one home could have multi devices online, from televisions and phones, to thermostats, refrigerators, and door locks. This has led to spectrum crunch, or an insufficient amount of wireless frequency spectrum needed to support the growing number of devices. The visible light spectrum is a much wider spectrum than the radio wave spectrum used by WiFi, and can help solve spectrum crunch.
There’s also a matter of security. WiFi has proven not to be the most secure way to send data. Because radio waves can travel through obstacles like walls, it allows us to gain access to the internet via a wifi connection from almost anywhere. But it also allows bad actors to gain access to the same wifi connection, whether they are inside our home or business or not. With LiFi, data can only be received by devices within the path of the light, making it a more secure way to send sensitive data.
LiFi could also prove to be more efficient than what we use today. LED bulbs have been touted for their efficiency when compared to older incandescent light bulbs. The average incandescent light bulb can last for 1,000 hours, whereas LED bulbs can last for thousands of hours before needing to be changed. Also, by using LED lights to transfer data, we could eliminate the need for devices like WiFi amplifiers, antennas, modems, routers, and all of the wiring that accompanies them.
There are some drawbacks to LiFi. Currently, LiFi only covers a diameter of 10 meters. A WiFi network has the ability to cover 32 meters. Also, because light cannot travel through walls, any home and office considering installing a LiFi system will need to have data transmitting light bulbs in every room that requires internet. This isn’t as bad as it appears, as most rooms that need internet typically need light as well, but it can be expensive. Life.co, claims its LiFiMax kit is the most affordable LiFi product on the market today, and it’s being sold for $1,098. The kit is plug and play, and includes one LiFi access point and two sensors or dongles, and also requires a separate purchase of a power over ethernet injector for $20, and the ethernet cable for $7. At that price range, a LiFi setup is out of reach for most. Outside light is also a problem for LiFi. Any light coming from sources other than the LED bulb transmitting the signal will disrupt the flow of data, this includes sun rays coming from outside the room where the LiFi access point is located.
If LiFi matures like other great technologies of the past, some of these issues should get better over time. And as the ecosystem for LiFi is developed, this should create more LiFi users, which should bring down the price of LiFi units.
Internet Access of the Future
LiFi will be in our future. After seeing Dr. Haas’ Ted Talks in 2011, I expected LiFi to take off immediately. But after several years of not seeing anything LiFi related, I thought the idea had been scrapped. Though it hasn’t taken off, I’m happy to know the idea isn’t dead, and that there are several companies working to improve LiFi and educate people on the technology. Knowing that early concepts of the internet had a start within the U.S. military, I’m taking the U.S. Army’s use of LiFi as a very positive signal for LiFi’s future.
Now that I’ve figured out what happened to LiFi, the question I have now is who will be the first company to add LiFi enabled receivers to their devices? The safe bet is Samsung, because it holds a large number of LiFi patents. But I shouldn't count Apple out. It was Apple ($AAPL), in 1999, that added wireless networking to its iBook, at a time when most people were still connecting to the internet with a home phone line, and before WiFi was the standard. Then there's Oppo, who patented a smartphone with LiFi technology
If the last 10 years was about creating awareness for LiFi, the next 10 years could be about adoption. Progress can be a slow process at times, and the full blown adoption of LiFi is moving slower than I expected, but it is moving forward, and that's great to know.