Apple eyes plans to turn us on to Li-Fi

Apple support for Li-Fi has implications for IoT, retail transformation and smart home deployments

Remember when Apple introduced the world to Wi-Fi back in 1999 with the iBook and first-generation AirPort standard? It appears the company’s making plans to lend its muscle to Li-Fi, a super-fast wireless transmission tech that uses light to send data, with implications for IoT, retail transformation and smart home deployments.

What is Li-Fi?

Li-Fi works in a similar way to optical cable (transmitting data through light) but scientists have figured out how to create accurate light transmissions without needing a cable. Li-Fi can achieve data send speeds of up to 1Gbps with a theoretical top speed of 224Gbps, so around 100-times faster than Wi-Fi. The potential for multimedia is magnificent; download a 1.5 GB movie in a fraction of a second.

It works by varying the intensity of light, invisible to the eye. AppleInsider notes that in use, Li-Fi would allow the bulb in your hallway to “provide a data access point." It also enables programmable functions and has implications on indoor location and retail communications.

“A Li-Fi network can be programmed to achieve specific tasks, such as guiding the Yamaha home robot to its bed before turning off the light. The network can also track and localise moving objects/persons indoors, outdoors, and from indoors to outdoors,” Li-Fi Centre explains.

Why do we think Apple is using Li-Fi?

We don’t know for certain that Apple is exploring Li-Fi, but we do know Apple explores new technologies from time-to-time.

AppleInsider claims “Beginning with iOS 9.1, the operating system's library cache file makes mention of "LiFiCapability" alongside other hardware and software capability declarations.”

In October 2011, companies and industry groups formed the Li-Fi Consortium to promote the technology. Founder members include Fraunhofer IPMS, Germany; IBSENtelecom, Norway and US/Israeli company, Supreme Architecture. (The latter has a website that is “under construction.")

The technology is now beginning to reach market. India’s Velmenni has already begun real-world testing and Oldedcomm already sells Li-Fi solutions.

What problems does Li-Fi solve?

It’s highly speculative to suggest how Apple might harness Li-Fi broadband, but the capability of the light-based wireless Internet standard to support high bandwidth applications could open the door to a range of media services (such as HD video provision) to mobile devices and Macs, as well as enabling users to get more from existing connections.

The move to connected transport may inspire development. Might Li-Fi become part of some kind of mesh-based broadband provision designed to handle the needs of connected vehicles in such a way as to not jam up existing networks? Networks will, after all, become increasingly stretched as they attempt to support the emerging Internet of Things. Those Philips Hue lightbulbs may end up becoming your new wireless network hubs.

Li-Fi must be seen as one among a pantheon of emerging broadband providing technologies, with White Space (use of radio frequencies formerly used by TV and radio broadcasters) tech also seen as a potential panacea for stretched broadband infrastructure in the IoT.

The technology is also seeing some implementations in location-based indoor positioning solutions (think iBeacons). A company called ByteLight is developing location and communication solutions for retail. Finally, Apple has a patent for a Li-Fi-optimized image sensor.

What’s important to note is that Li-Fi is not intended to be a replacement for Wi-Fi, but a companion technology, presumably designed for home networks and IoT deployments.

What’s the schedule?

I can’t provide a credible guess of when (or even if) Apple will deploy this technology, but if the company continues development, I’d hazard a guess that we may see it appear in 24-48-months. That schedule is based on the time I have seen final deployment take following initial rumor as regards Apple in the past. (From OS X to Lightning).

I expect we will have a much firmer grasp on the application and use of the technology by then.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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