Scientists have been looking at optics for some time as a means of enhancing the usual means of data processing. In terms of computing, it means that using optical components – which use photons rather than electrons to transmit information – could lead to computers that can run exponentially faster than those that use traditional electronics. But a group of German scientists have taken that a step farther, proposing an internet that runs on the same principles.
Using conventional LED bulbs in a laboratory setting, researchers at the Fraunhofer Henrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany successfully transmitted data at 3Gbps using conventional. In a real-world setting, the same system was capable of transmitting data at rate of 500Mbps, roughly a dozen to hundreds of times what a conventional WiFi network is capable of transmitting.
The concept of visible light communications (VLC), or LiFi as it is sometimes known, has received a lot of attention in recent years, mostly due to the growing prevalence of LED technology. Much like other solid-state electronics, LEDs can be controlled as any other electronic component can. By extension, a VLC network can be created along the same lines as a WiFi one, using terahertz radiation (light) instead of microwaves and an LED bulb instead of an oscillating a WiFi transmitter, and photodetectors instead of antennas.
Compared to WiFi, the LiFi concept comes with a slew of advantages. First of all, it can turn any LED lamp into a network connection, and since it operates at such high frequencies, is well beyond the range of the current regulatory licensing framework. For the same reason, LiFi can be used in areas where extensive RF (radio-frequency) interference is common, such as on airplanes, in airports and hospitals. The Fraunhofer researchers even claim that VLC improves privacy, since the signal is directed from one box to another and not made up waves that can be easily picked up on by a third party.
But of course, there is still much research and development that needs to be done. As it stands, the Fraunhoer research is limited in terms of how much information can be sent and how much distance it can travel. In order to compete with conventional WiFi, a system that uses optics to transmit information will have to be able to demonstrate the ability to pack a significant amount of bandwidth into a signal that can reach in excess of 100 m.
Nevertheless, there are numerous startups that are making headway, and many more researchers who are adapting optical components for computers as we speak. As a result, it shouldn’t be long before signs like this are appearing everywhere in your neighborhood…