Wi-Fi networks are great for keeping all your devices connected to high-speed internet, but they have their drawbacks. The more smart home devices you add and the more neighbors you have with similar setups, the more congested radio frequencies will inevitably become. Despite encryption, Wi-Fi is also not completely private, allowing prying eyes to see which devices are connected and active. So how do we get around all these problems? Maybe by seeing the light.
The infrared-light-based standard Li-Fi aims to address these pain points, but not without introducing some problems of its own. And even though it’s been around for 12 years until this very month, you might find that these issues have kept you from seeing Li-Fi networks everywhere.
At MWC 2023, Android Police sat down with the folks at pureLiFi, one of the companies trying to get the technology off the ground. They give us their take on when we might see it in smartphones, routers and other devices, and how the company’s mass-production-ready Light Antenna One could change how we connect to the Internet.
To begin with, the idea of light-based transmission of information is not new. You probably use something similar every day when sending signals from your remote control to your TV, and you may remember the IR-based data transmission option on feature phones that forces you to line up two handsets for success. Li-Fi is much more advanced than any of these, and it is about to reach a crucial milestone: IEEE specification under the 802.11bb Light Communication standard, making it a technology that lives right next to Wi-Fi and 5G.
In addition to presenting its smartphone-ready antennas, pureLiFi also offered a few demos of concept devices. The oddest one we saw is probably a cube-shaped plug-and-play router with an array of IR blasters arranged in a mirror-like surface. Ideally, Li-Fi would be integrated into your ceiling light, but pureLiFi admits this is something many people are likely to shy away from, whether for aesthetic reasons or for fear of dealing with electrical circuits. The plug-and-play router then offers an easy solution.
Demo smartphones available at the booth had their antennas integrated into a bulky case, with a manual switch required to switch to the one best pointed at the Li-Fi access point. In a final product, the antennas would be integrated into the chassis and they would automatically switch or support each other.
When asked how this would affect smartphone design, pureLiFi told us that consumers are already used to bulky camera sensors, so it didn’t see it as an insurmountable problem. Given that Antenna One is a first-generation product, it will likely shrink in the future as well. We could imagine it could be similar to the IR blasters that some smartphones already integrate today to act as remote controls, although the surface area they need might be a bit larger. With cases already leaving cutouts for microphones, speakers, ports and more, we don’t think the antennas would change the equation too much.
The company told us that while line-of-sight to the access point is necessary to achieve the best possible speeds, the antennas can also work with light bounced off walls. Of course, as soon as you put your phone in your pocket, it’s no longer possible. In that case, smartphones with Li-Fi antennas would seamlessly switch back to Wi-Fi or your cellular connection — just as it already does when you leave your Wi-Fi network at home.
It is clear then that pureLiFi does not see its technology as a replacement for Wi-Fi and 5G. Instead, it is supposed to free up precious RF spectrum, which will be a boon for dormitories, hotels and apartment buildings with dozens of overlapping networks and hundreds of connected devices including IoT gadgets. Li-Fi could make it possible to reserve a stable and fast connection for devices only in your home, and it could also ease the pressure on Wi-Fi if smart home devices use it – similar to existing alternatives like ZigBee or Thread.
There’s also a security benefit: For critical infrastructure, diplomats and security researchers, Li-Fi can reduce the risk of nearby but remotely executed security threats. Even with encrypted Wi-Fi, a potential attacker would be able to know their targets are communicating—not to mention that the connection could be blocked or garbled. Li-Fi is physically confined to a single room, and as soon as the curtains are drawn and the door closed, no one knows what you’re doing in there.
Also, for smartphone manufacturers, it shouldn’t be too complicated to integrate Li-Fi antennas in addition to finding enough space for them, since they are compatible with common Wi-Fi basebands. They thus do not require yet another piece of hardware that takes up valuable space in smartphones.
The company also demonstrated a Li-Fi-based 5G mmWave repeater that helps the ultra-fast standard penetrate windows it normally can’t pass without the need for cables.
pureLiFi told us it’s already talking to smartphone manufacturers, and a source familiar with the matter confirmed to us that this is indeed the case for at least one major manufacturer. It’s still no guarantee that we’ll see the technology soon, if at all. Smartphone manufacturers are constantly researching and developing (Motorola’s rollable concept and the OnePlus 11 concept are proof enough), and an IEEE specification won’t stop some of them from playing with their own ideas. And after all, the light-based technology comes with its own serious drawbacks and would require not only a new smartphone but also a Li-Fi access point, adding a potential barrier to widespread adoption.
With the demand for data and bandwidth increasing every year, pureLiFi believes that classic RF technologies will not be able to keep up, inevitably forcing electronics companies to look for alternatives, be it Li-Fi or otherwise.