Okay, we all know what WiFi is – a short range wireless network connection for our smart phones, tablets and computers.  Most of us even know that radio waves are used to transmit the data.  Well if we use light waves instead of radio waves, we have LiFi.  The fields of Visible Light Communication (VLC), Optical Wireless, and Photonics all contributed to the development of LiFi.  Expectations are that optical wireless data transfer rates can significantly exceed radio wave rates.   Currently, “point to point” optical wireless seems to be further along in commercial product development than the “one point to many” LiFi topology.  LiFi also isn’t (currently) spectrum controlled/restricted by government agencies and it doesn’t add to the bath of radio frequency emissions that surrounds us.

I visited all the LiFi-related booths that I could find at CES.  First was OyaLight.com (from France) which makes interior lighting LED panels that are used by both commercial startup Luciom.com (yup France) and French Government research agency Leti/CEA.  Tricolor!

Then, like Columbus,  I “discovered” the booth for the Center on Optical Wireless Applications (cowa.psu.edu) which is a collaborative effort between Penn State and Georgia Tech with support from the National Science Foundation.   The Beijing Institute of Technology, School of OptoElectronics (english.bit.edu.cn) is participating in COWA and there are also currently 10 industrial partners including Airbus, Boeing, Corning, Lockheed Martin and NEC.   The booth displayed research hardware for a VLC data transmission system and an indoor position locating system.  I really appreciated their patience with all of my basic questions.

The last LiFi exhibitor I visited was OLEDComm.com which is also from France and appears to have actual products to sell and an online catalog and store.  Both Luciom and OLEDComm touted indoor locating systems – possibly the first “killer app” for LiFi.

For the great outdoors, GPS is pretty much king for determining your position.  But since signals from orbiting satellites can’t penetrate most roofs and walls, it (including differential GPS) isn’ t practical for generic indoor applications.   This is where LiFi comes in.  Most indoor settings have interior lighting – even in daytime and close to windows.  With 2014 being the year mass market incandescent light bulb production/importation stopped in the US and thus boosting the popularity of LED lighting, this brings us to the connection between LiFi and LED lighting.  It turns out that LEDs can be easily pulsed to generate LiFi data streams and the optical sensors to read these streams are fairly inexpensive.

So, just like how your GPS in your smartphone can determine where you are, display this info on a road map, and give you directions, a LiFi-enabled device  can display your location and give you directions in a building that has been mapped and has LiFi-capable lights installed.  Each Lifi light would broadcast a unique light sequence (that happens so fast, the human won’t notice) which lets your LiFi smartphone know where you are in the building.

First generation implementations would probably be hybrid and use both WiFi and LiFi.  Position information would come from LiFi but all the other data transfer (map graphics and building data) would go over WiFi.  As LiFi data transfer rates increase, it would replace WiFi.  Who knows what the next round of LiFi apps will be?   The future looks bright.   This is definitely a technology GearDb will be following.