This Li-Fi thing is pretty cool, but it would be a lot more interesting if reports were honest about fundamental flaws
Tech enthusiasts reading the news these past few weeks can be forgiven for thinking Internet technology just broke through a huge wall. Reading all the Li-Fi headlines, I was asking myself — did we just make the equivalent jump from dial-up and DSL to Wi-Fi?
No. Not even close. But don’t tell the media — “100 times faster than Wi-Fi” sure makes for a sexy headline but the tech has some serious flaws.
But anyone can live with the occasional outlandish headline. The problem is, after trawling through weeks worth of Li-Fi news, most articles buried technological problems which could seriously impact the ability for Li-Fi to ever become commercially viable in the last paragraph.
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Before elaborating on those issues, let’s explain what exactly Li-Fi is, and why it has generated so much excitement.
What is Li-Fi, and why is has it become a hot topic this Holiday season?
First posited by Professor Harald Haas of Edinburgh University at a TED Talk in 2011, the theory uses light, an Internet connection and a photo detector to transform information in a carrier wave (a high-frequency electromagnetic wave) to data, which can be transformed into high-speed Internet.
In the most basic of sense, the theory leverages the inherent ability of LED lightbulbs to modulate thousands of light signals basically instantaneously. The technology extracts the information-bearing signal from the LED light’s carrier wave — called demodulation. It then converts the information to binary data, which can be transported to the Internet.
On November 27, the BBC reported that an Estonian company called Velmenni tested a commercial application of the technology and transferred data at a speed of 1Gbps with a theoretical speed of 224 Gbps.
The Velmenni news is a big deal because, until then, Li-Fi had been constrained to the theory, research and prototyping stage. This was the news peg that inspired the rush of articles.
If that description just left your head aching, drop everything and watch the video of Haas’ 2011 speech below.
So, what’s the problem?
We are e27, a company dedicated to both entrepreneurship and tech, so if anyone should be cheering on Li-Fi it is us. It’s a complicated, potentially groundbreaking, technology with a host of issues. So, right up our alley.
The issue isn’t with the Li-Fi companies, it is the media’s coverage — whether it be MTV, The Next Web or Mashable, readers get a sexy headline and 9/10 of an article explaining how it will transform the industry.
At the end, we finally get the problems with the technology — natural light interferes with the technology, so it can’t be used outdoors (or near windows). For that matter, it also can’t really be used indoors because light waves don’t travel through walls.
That leaves one place to use Li-Fi in its current iteration: one cold dark room filled with LED lights.
This is a serious problem, correct? Am I wrong to think this is the kind of defect that would be nice to know before diving headlong into a deep discussion of technological feasibility?
If I know the limitations going in, it is OK to read a 2,000-word piece explaining how science fiction is becoming reality. But to bury problems that fundamentally impact whether or not the technology could ever become commercially feasible? That is misleading.
Here is an especially galling example via The Next Web.
“Intelligent car-to-car communications could be enabled via the vehicles’ LED headlights, with a view towards preventing accidents.”
How could this possibly work knowing natural light interferes immensely with the technology?
But, for fun, let’s break down some of the suggested uses for Li-Fi, and explain how many of the ‘benefits’ become detractions.
Statement: LiFi can be used on a plane because it won’t interfere with radio frequencies!
Reality: It can’t be used on a plane unless they take out the windows or force them all shut. (As a lover of window seats, I will gladly enjoy mindnumbingly slow Wi-Fi to be able to see what it’s like to be above clouds.) Furthermore, the entire plane will need to be filled with LED lights. Woofta.
Statement: Because the light is restricted to specific spaces, it makes data more secure!
Reality: It also means that precious data, and the person utilising such information, also cannot leave. This argument is akin to saying ‘stay indoors because the big bad world is scary’. (Although, the slow demise of mobile zombies could be a real perk).
Statement: It is regular light, users won’t be able to tell that it carries the Internet!
Reality: The lights will literally always have to be on. Want to enjoy that Netflix series “Master of None”? Turn on those LEDs, baby! Sure, at this point, I’m just whining, but hanging out in a room with no natural light, lit entirely by LEDs, for hours on end? Sounds like a guaranteed migraine.
Hopefully, I can be self-critical and remember the lesson in the future: When we run up against a really freaking cool technology, writers, enthusiasts and techies need to be willing to point out the flaws obviously and quickly. Because only when the discourse includes limitations does it become an honest, vibrant debate.
Take Li-Fi. Doesn’t grounding the technology a bit actually make it more exciting?
This ‘imperfect technology that could actually become a real thing’ is way cooler than ‘check out this unbelievable product that doesn’t really exist.’
The post OTR: Stop burying the problems with Li-Fi to save the headline appeared first on e27.
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