Alexander Graham Bell – the inventor of the telephone – believed his “greatest achievement” was not in fact the device that made him a household name and became the standard medium of voice communication in the 20th century.
Instead, he told a reporter shortly before his death that his ‘photophone’ – a device that allowed speech to be transmitted through beams of light – was of far greater scientific importance. Sadly, for Graham Bell, he would never live to see the potential of this particular invention: the ability to transmit speech through light was not fully realised until a century later when fibre optic communication became possible in the 1970s, heralding the dawn of the information age.
The story is keenly recounted by Professor Harald Haas who, appropriately enough, I meet in his University of Edinburgh offices, in the building named after his hero and man he describes as an “amazing genius”. Professor Haas very much sees himself as carrying the baton passed on by his illustrious predecessor in the field of modern communications technology: in this era of the internet Professor’s sole quest over the last decade has been to take Graham Bell’s invention a step further, using light to transmit data wirelessly.
To this extent he has been successful, as Graham Bell was with his photophone: Haas has proved that his ‘Li-Fi’ technology can work, and has demonstrated so in Ted Talks that have generated almost a million views on YouTube.
Not only that, Haas has also proved that Li-Fi, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Wi-Fi, can transmit data at speeds of up to 100 times faster on a visible light spectrum which has 10,000 times more space than ‘crowded’ radio waves. If realised commercially the technology has the potential to be a game changer, particularly in Scotland which suffers like many other countries from poor broadband speeds. But to become a challenger to the market-dominating telecommunications industry, Li-Fi must displace the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Vodafone: it’s a huge task, yet one that Haas doesn’t shrink from.
His ‘solution’ is to convince the likes of Apple and Samsung to adopt Li-Fi (both have shown an interest, incidentally) to adopt the technology in their devices and then to work in partnership with lighting manufacturers who will need to carry a microchip in each LED light (it doesn’t work for old-fashioned tungsten element bulbs) that will become the transmitter of data to handsets.
“It becomes light-as-a-service,” says Haas enthusiastically. “If you have a connected light you have a mechanism by which you can provide many services. You can send information about the distribution of people, you can connect the light to all your devices to enable the internet of things, the lights can be used for Industry 4.0 applications in an industrial setting.
“The light can be used in secure wireless communications devices because light doesn’t go through walls, so there are many, many different applications that can be developed around that connectivity. So the lighting industry has a chance to develop new business models which eat market share from the wireless industry, because if it becomes not only a light but a router then you don’t need a Wi-Fi router.”
The technology itself has not been very explained, I tell Professor Haas, in that the numerous press releases I have read concentrate on how light beams data from the source (an LED bulb) to the device (a phone, laptop, tablet etc), but not how the data arrives at the bulb itself.
“It’s through the overhead power cables,” Haas says. “That’s why we don’t need any new infrastructure; we already have it. We can piggyback on the existing power cables network. So the data is transmitted through the wires that serve your home with electricity.” But does that mean we will have to live in a permanent state of luminescence if we are to stream the latest series of House of Cards i.e. what do you do when the lights are off?
“You can reduce the intensity so it appears off but it will still emit enough photons for the detector,” adds Haas, with an air of scientific irreproachability.
Haas’s spin-off company, PureLifi, has already developed three commercially available dongles, which can be plugged into USB ports to receive a Li-Fi signal, which Haas calls an “early stage engagement product”; he is also currently working with a company in France to integrate the rather cumbersome-looking ‘smoke-detector-like’ receiver which sits next to the light on the ceiling, so that a microchip sits within the luminaire encasing itself.
The technology is also proving to be of interest to planners in Dubai: by the end of this year the ultramodern Emirates city will boast Li-Fi capabilities in its streetlights, which will beam the internet to passers-by. But for Haas the ultimate goal is on bringing our white goods homeware to life, with Li-Fi powering the ‘internet of things’, with traditional lighting companies such as Philips as being the enablers.
“In five years from now they will not be a light bulb manufacturer; they will be a lighting-slash-communications company. Imagine you have the light itself forming the channel for controlling it (such as the Apple/Philips Hue). The next step would be connecting the light to your oven, to your fridge, your microwave etc, so now you can see the energy consumption of your devices and even order products when they run out.”
Although Haas’s company has now been around for five years and there is no sign as yet of mass market adoption, he predicts that it will be in a phone (maybe Apple, Samsung, or “someone else”) within two years and it will be “ubiquitous” within five.
“If you look at the innovation cycle, the landline telephone, it took a hundred years for 100 per cent coverage,” Haas adds. “If you look at Wi-Fi, because everyone has Wi-Fi now, it took 15 years because I remember the first Wi-Fi dongle, and that was around 2000. The innovation cycles are dramatically decreasing.”
And for that eventuality, he believes Edinburgh – and Scotland – is well-placed to take advantage of this nascent and homegrown technology. Like the powerhouse industries of yore, which have died off or are a shadow of what they once were, the new industry is digital, and we should be at the forefront of the new gold rush, which could see Scotland becoming a Li-Fi hub.
“People moan about the old industries like coal mining and steel now but this is a new industry,” Haas says. “Imagine that this lamp is a rail track and all applications are carriers on the rail track – all the applications run on that machine (a phone). How many companies are involved in those applications? Now imagine you have a similar rail track in your ceiling – how many applications can you programme around smart homes, smart environments, the Internet of Things. It’s a big industry around sensored app developers and it can be here.”
“Whoever is able to understand and recognise that, and make the best innovations around data will succeed, in my view, in the next 10 years going forward. That’s why investing in digital data and all its forms in my view must be the strategic goal of any country.”