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An artistic rendering of the new light-driven wireless network in action.  (Source: Boston University)
Could the networks of the future run on light

Solid-state lighting is one of the hottest topics in the tech industry, and with good reason.  The Department of Energy is sponsoring a $20M USD "L Prize" for advances in LED lighting, a type of light which uses solid-state components (diodes).  The research is a big deal as lighting currently consumes 22 percent of the electricity in the U.S.  If the DOE accomplishes its goals of reducing lighting energy use by 50 percent, it would save billions of dollars and reduce environmental impact.

New research from Boston University's College of Engineering, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, indicates that LEDs may be not only the integral lighting component of the future, but may also form the backbone of future wireless networks.

BU Engineering Professor Thomas Little describes the new research, stating, "Imagine if your computer, iPhone, TV, radio and thermostat could all communicate with you when you walked in a room just by flipping the wall light switch and without the usual cluster of wires.  This could be done with an LED-based communications network that also provides light - all over existing power lines with low power consumption, high reliability and no electromagnetic interference. Ultimately, the system is expected to be applicable from existing illumination devices, like swapping light bulbs for LEDs."

The primary goal of the research is to develop LEDs that do exactly that -- transmit information wirelessly via controlled blinking. 

Little continues, "This is a unique opportunity to create a transcendent technology that not only enables energy efficient lighting, but also creates the next generation of secure wireless communications.  As we switch from incandescent and compact florescent lighting to LEDs in the coming years, we can simultaneously build a faster and more secure communications infrastructure at a modest cost along with new and unexpected applications."

Professor Little and his colleagues imagine LED lighting in the room being hooked up to computer circuitry, which uses existing lighting to implement a wireless network which provides data to computers, personal digital assistants, television and radio reception, telephone connections and thermostat temperature control.  Prototypes of the new network design, according to Professor Little, should start at around 1 to 10 Mbps.  Better yet, bandwidth would be greater than in existing radio frequency (RF)-driven networks.

In the new network, each LED light bulb would act as an access point.  Another perk of the new design is beefed up security.  Unlike RF networks, the new signal would not pass through walls or other opaque objects.  This would help prevent snooping and connection theft.  The new system would also use much less power than RF, as solid state lighting is energetically cheaper to the strong radio signals needed for wireless internet. 

The flickering which drove the network would be performed so fast the human eye could not see it.  The network would ideally be able to operate outdoors as well as indoors.  The first test deployment may be outdoors, with a likely candidate being car interiors.  Professor Little continues, "This technology has many implications for automobile safety.  Brake lights already use LEDs, so it's not a stretch to outfit an automobile with a sensor that detects the brake lights of the car in front of it and either alerts an inattentive driver or actively slows the car."

While the technology seems very promising, one quandary is how to make the communication bidirectional.  Professor Little and his team have not elaborate on this tricky point yet in the initial press.  In order to send data requests, you would need a means of receiving light from devices such as cell phones or laptops, however, you ideally would want to avoid having to have a bright blinking transmitter on your device walls covered in sensors. 

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Beefed-up security my ass
By PrinceGaz on 10/7/2008 3:24:02 PM , Rating: 2
Another perk of the new design is beefed up security. Unlike RF networks, the new signal would not pass through walls or other opaque objects. This would help prevent snooping and connection theft.

Whilst it won't pass through walls and other opaque objects, sufficient visible-light will most definitely pass through windows even with curtains closed and could be very easily snooped on from a much greater distance than current RF technologies can be, simply by using a small tripod-mounted telescope in front of the receiver.

With a decent astronomical telescope and a good vantage point, your snooping range could easily extend to a mile or more - simply aim the telescope at whichever light-source you wish to snoop on and you're in business.

Far from being more secure, light based communications are much less secure - unless the room where it is being used has no windows (or windows with light-proof shutters which are kept closed whilst in use). The same security can already be achieved with RF networks by using special paint and window coatings, and you don't need to have all your windows shuttered-closed whenever you want a secure network.

Visible-light communications being more secure is about as daft an idea as I've heard.

RE: Beefed-up security my ass
By mindless1 on 10/7/2008 5:24:43 PM , Rating: 2
Security is relative to the threat. The threat of lots of people sitting somewhere with a light detecting rifle-telescope sensor is far less than your neighbor or some wardriver receiving the signal now. Security is also about making changes.

Once the common hacker knows how to get a wifi signal, change the signal to light then they have to start over, relearn and buy far more expensive equipment instead of using the network adapter that came in their laptop or costs $5 online. If a window coating can prevent RF escape, why isn't it fair to say a basic window blind can prevent sufficient light escape?

Ultimately you are still correct that extending detection range through a window has a security drawback, we should see the marketing like context the claims were made within.

RE: Beefed-up security my ass
By PrinceGaz on 10/7/2008 7:30:33 PM , Rating: 2
The reason visible-light transmissions are so much more vulnerable than wifi, is that it will be much easier to spot potential hot-spots, as you can quite literally *see* them. They will also be much easier to target as you could use even a cheap telescope to focus on a very small target from a considerable distance with an extremely high gain, unlike high-gain RF antennas which in the UHF range are very bulky.

Anyone who is already going to the trouble of snooping on connections to steal information, would have no problem adapting a cheap telescope to allow them to snoop on light communications. In many ways it's easier as you can see exactly where you need to point it, and a good telescope with a spotter-scope would allow you to selectively pick targets all around your neighbourhood one after another until you found one that was useful.

Relatively long-wavelength microwave transmissions (such as those used by wifi) can be easily blocked with coatings that do not stop visible light-- an extreme example of this is in a microwave oven where the mesh on the oven door allows you to safely look into it as it cooks food, despite the fact that a magnetron inside is pumping out around 1KW of microwave radiation. The relatively simple screen on the door along with the metal body of the rest of the oven almost completely blocks those powerful microwave transmissions. We can easily coat windows with unobtrusive highly-effective RF shields and even more easily coat walls as they don't have to be so transparent to visible-light.

On the other hand, using visible-light for network-traffic absolutely requires that visible-light is blocked, which makes a mockery of the desire to be in a room with a window that lets you look outside. A world with light-networking would probably require a world with windowless-houses.

RE: Beefed-up security my ass
By cscpianoman on 10/7/2008 10:25:32 PM , Rating: 2
You would have to have some incredible setup for that. While you may be able to see the window with the blinds drawn, I really doubt, with today's tech you would be able to pick up a signal. There would be a significant resolution problem with trying to pick up such a scattered signal. Think of it terms of the stars, on a clear night you can see stars fairly easily and if you are lucky there is minimal flickering. However, add in clouds, temperature changes, dust in the air and any signal would be seriously destroyed by the time it reaches you. I could be wrong, but I would think it pretty impossible.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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