What if your lights could not only let you see, but also deliver high speed internet right to your laptop, phone or computer? It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but this futuristic technology not only exists, it’s already producing internet speeds like we’ve never seen.
LiFi is a technology that uses light instead of radio waves to transmit data. With data rates as high as 3.5 gigabytes per second using a single blue LED, researchers say it has the potential to transform the landscape of IoT technology and usher in an era where data-heavy technology like virtual reality is realized. But like is often the case with new technology, adoption and integration hasn’t been swift.
In the latest episode of the Elevated Environments podcast our host, Phil Ruane, talks with Signify’s LiFi experts, Ed Huibers and Floris Maassen about what the future holds for LiFi’s business development and how its applications could impact our lives.
(The following is an excerpt from the Elevated Environments podcast. Interview has been edited for length.)
Phil Ruane: It's good to have you gentlemen with us. Thank you for coming. How are you doing?
Ed Huibers: Good. We're doing well, we're doing well.
Floris Maassen: Thanks for having us, Philip.
PR: Well, it's my pleasure. We always need experts on the Elevated Environments podcast, so we're so glad you came today. Just in general, how long has Signify been developing LiFi and how did you come to your role in promoting LiFi?
EH: Starting with my background, I've been part of Philips, which is now rebranded to Signify, I think for almost 20 years. So, I've been a lighting guy in that sense. I’ve busy with all these lighting innovations, sustainability, controls and all these things. My first touch point I think was more than a decade ago. So, the technology and the fact that Signify, Philips at that stage, was looking at how to communicate with lighting is not new, in that sense. So, we've been experimenting with this for years. And as part of the innovation team for the last seven or eight years, I've been dealing with new innovations, bringing new innovations to market. Three years ago, I was asked to do the same for LiFi. At that stage, we were really bringing the technology to the next level, where we are today. So, we've been dealing with a topic for a long time. But let's say the last three years we have accelerated on this a lot.
PR: It's cool because I remember seeing a prototype of LiFi at Lightfair a couple years ago. And I remember that, it just didn't seem like it was ready for prime time at that point. Forgive me if that's, you know, not true, but tell me - how has it come along and what are some of the best applications for WiFi these days?
EH: What we actually did in the beginning was to bring the technology from the research labs and innovation centers to more of the general public. The technology was around but more in, let's say, the background environment. And we thought it was very good to stimulate the market by bringing a product to market. Our first product was quite big, bulky, maybe not that fast, and in the meantime, we grew to a portfolio with, I would say, a superfast LiFi solution, so we went a long way. But we needed that first product, basically to trigger the marketplace and to trigger people in thinking, hey there's LiFi, this might be something for us. Now, we are very dealing with several applications and maybe Floris can you elaborate a little bit on the applications we are dealing with.
FM: Yeah sure, so I came to LiFi, I think it was a year ago soon in the start of the COVID situation here in the Netherlands. And I basically joined it because it is Signify, which has a big history with Philips. We've been around for quite a while, over a century. But at the same time, it's innovative. It's a small company, or we see ourselves as a small company, like 40-50 people. And that's something that's pretty unique. And LiFi is something that is easy to explain. It's broadband internet connections over lighting. At the same time, that's really hard to explain because people say, "What really? Can this actually be done?" I live in Eindhoven (Netherlands), in the heart of nerdville, as I always say, with really intelligent people. And everybody is genuinely surprised, like wow, I didn't know this was even possible. It's a simple application sitting in your office, needing broadband connections. Because you do Teams all day, like we all do right now, right? Working with heavy applications, and then sharing your WiFi, your internet connections with the rest of the office, or with the rest of your house. You can run into problems there. And that is where, with LiFi, you can basically offload the WiFi, for instance, or have dedicated places in an office where you can either work safely, or you can work in a super-fast way. This is the simple side of LiFi that everybody can relate to.
FM: And if you talk about the industrial variant of LiFi, it's where if radio (frequency) is not an option due to the fact you're working in the industrial environment, a lot of interference from steel construction, or maybe things like operations, like welding, which creates a lot of a lot of radio interference in LiFi, it can be a great opportunity, a great solution. Airlines, for instance, same way. We all know that you know as soon as your plane is taxiing to go up in the air, you shut off your cell phone because you possibly can interfere with sensitive equipment. LiFi, it's not radio, meaning the options for 4k gaming is what people want to do in the plane. There could be an option, working with no interruption.
PR: Well, let me ask you this. I kind of look at LiFi and I see it as competing a little bit with WiFi. There are going to be a lot of people who say, “Well, this is really cool and interesting technology, it's amazing that you can put data through lighting, but I already have WiFi, so what do I need this really cool, high-technology for?” What would you say to someone like that?
EH: A lot of people are pretty satisfied with WiFi. They sort of accepted the fact that on a Monday morning when everybody is in the office, the WiFi [is not] good. And there are some corner offices where it doesn't work really well, and therefore people have learned to deal with those limitations. And I think LiFi can solve that, in cooperation with WiFi. So, we don't see LiFi as a competitor of WiFi. I think these two systems can work hand in hand.
EH: The other aspect of WiFi is - it's a beautiful technology, but it goes through everything, so I'm in the home situation right now and I can see the WiFi of my neighbors. And if you have a bank or a governmental institution that means that your WiFi, your network, is basically on the street. And this is where a lot of companies are concerned about the security aspects. And LiFi has this beautiful aspect as sort of a physical layer of security. I have LiFi in my home office, and you need to be physically in my home office to connect. So that gives an additional layer of security. So, in that sense, if people are happy with WiFi, if it's gives them what they need, they should stick with WiFi. But I expect security, stability of the network, especially when we see that every 18 to 24 months, our data usage is doubling globally. So, the pressure on WiFi and radio will be growing and growing and growing and, in that sense, I think we need all hands-on deck. So, we will work together with the WiFi manufacturers and the 5G manufacturers to provide connectivity, wherever you need.
FM: Ed was talking about security. There's a safety aspect in some cases to this, as well. So, imagine an ammunition bunker. You can't use radio there, or WiFi or 5G because of really sensitive equipment either. You don't want to have a blow up in your face. That's why, in those places you can't use radio, so if you do ammunition maintenance for instance, there's no need to go by hand right now. If you could automate this process with LiFi, for instance, because it's not radio, would be a huge benefit. So, that is, in a sense, it can be really practical. So, if you were in situation where radio doesn't work for instance, LiFi is a great alternative.
PR: There is something that Ed you alluded to, greater network congestions especially on WiFi. I've heard it said that current WiFi bands can't even keep up with the growth of devices that are joining these networks. So, there is a congestion problem that's upcoming. I know that LiFi can address that by offloading some of that congestion to the LiFi network could do the same thing?
EH: Now, the beauty of the technology, is again, that confined space. So, if I have exactly the same light frequency in a room next to my room, that's fine because they cannot see each other and therefore they cannot interfere. So that's one nice aspect of LiFi. The other side is that the capacity we have with LiFi, when it comes to how much data we can transfer, is much higher. Let's say if we look at from a physical or physics perspective - the wavelength is much shorter so we can add much more data to it, and already our current solutions you could say are on par with WiFi and 5G in terms of speeds and capacity. In our lab we did 50 gigabits out of one LED. So, we can create huge amounts of data flow with LiFi. So, we have this this spacing, and we have basically an overcapacity. And in the coming years, you will see that when you first saw it, we were at 30 megabits. We are now at 200 megabits. We have solutions for industrial applications like Floris mentioned for 500, 600 megabits, and we will soon break the gigabit barrier.
EH: So, in that sense in both directions I think there is a lot of capacity left over. And what your congestion, the providers call this the “spectrum crunch” data this is something which we, I think all can experience. In the past we went to an airport, long time ago, as so many people, so many devices, is basically impossible to connect to the WiFi of the airport.
FM: So, and to add to this, there's more and more devices coming online every day so where we thought that AR and VR, augmented reality or virtual reality, was a thing of playing around with stuff, right, for gaming, for instance. Now you see that AR and VR is applied in industries as well for instance for service and maintenance, meaning that people wear VR glasses, all day long. For instance, well, if you couple this with all the other devices that are on the same network. That's where you see the congestion coming.
PR: Now to be clear this technology, LiFi, does it affect how you can control a luminaire? Can you dim these luminaires down to 10%, or conference room levels, or anything like that?
EH: Yeah, let's say the first generation we use a lot of visible lights to communicate. We did see, however, some limitations in terms of the speeds we could reach. But also, the questions you have, like you want to dim the light or if you have enough daylight coming into your office, you want to harvest that light and dim your lights, maybe, or switch them off, you still want to have connectivity. So, what we currently see is the industry is moving. And we already moved to infrared, and that means there is an infrared unit in the luminaire, or next to the luminaire where the LiFi light comes from, and you can do with the lighting whatever you want. There's no effect on the performance on that. So that's a technology shift to infrared.
PR: So, in smart buildings, Environments is an IoT integration company, and we're working with a lot of different control manufacturers, Signify included. And we have a lot of wireless devices, and some of them are on ZigBee channel, some of them use Bluetooth. We even have a few that are on cellular networks and just traditional WiFi. If you have a building full of all of these wireless devices all trying to communicate with one another, does that create any crowding or latency? And would that affect the LiFi signal or the WiFi signal for that matter?
EH: It cannot affect the LiFi signal because we are in such a different spectrum. We cannot see it, it will not affect anything else. If you look at the different technologies you mentioned like ZigBee or Bluetooth, depends how close they are in terms of frequency to the WiFi bands, you have all these different protocols. Just some extreme example, if you have a LoRa for instance, I don't know if you're familiar with this low long-range data communication, frequency is way out of the area of WiFi so they will not interfere with each other. But of course, any device creates some sort of noise. And therefore, if you have a lot of devices together in one building, there is a certain noise level which could cause disturbances on all networks. And that's what we often see with WiFi, as well. People say, “Yeah, I can improve my WiFi by adding, for instance, a lot of routers to it. I will just add another router.” But each router will create a certain noise level. And if you add enough routers, you have so much noise that basically communication becomes difficult, so it is kind, I'm not saying it's very good technology, but it has its limitations. Now, in all the applications where line of sight is difficult, then radio is a much better solution. So, if you look at what big telecommunication companies, with 5G and WiFi. Now 5G is perfect for outdoors and long range, but 5G is not so good for indoors or when there are other disturbances. So, if you have both at the same time, you have the short range, reliable signal, but you also have the long-range radio signal combined into one device, I think you can get the best of both worlds.