“Electronics shaped the 20th century; now we are in the time of light,” says Carlotta de Bevilacqua, vice president of Italian lighting brand Artemide, and a leader in lighting research. “It is the great contemporary medium, and it is so important to the development of civilization.”
One of the reasons de Bevilacqua sees light as a defining technology for the century ahead is simply that there’s nothing faster than it. We already see this quality in high speed fibre optic internet connections, but the wireless networking technology Li-Fi – a Wi-Fi alternative first demonstrated by Professor Harald Haas in 2011, and now an open standard – promises to take this into the world with an ingenious hack. When the intensity of LED sources is rapidly modulated, data can travel at lightning speed, encoded in the beams as changes in brightness too fast to be detected by the human eye. Suddenly, an entire class of existing objects – even standard LED bulbs – has a new role in the connected home or workspace.
“It’s in the air, like Wi-Fi, but much faster, and we can introduce it in every object that is able to provide light,” de Bevilacqua explains. “It’s so important to not throw away what you have and to design incrementally. You add; you don’t destroy. You have to reduce to innovate – we have to do more with less material, and less energy.”
Though the early focus of Li-Fi testing has been in industrial applications, the technology will soon make its way into smart domestic environments. Last year, Artemide collaborated with researchers at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, using the brand’s Demetra lamp as a prototype transmitter. But what about when you switch the light off? “No problem,” de Bevilacqua says. The data can be transmitted with as little as 50 lux, or via infrared, neither of which humans will register.
While Li-Fi won’t replace our existing systems, it will serve as a complementary technology for the internet of things, with the benefit of minimal additional energy consumption. It still needs to follow the laws of physics – it can bounce, but like any light, it can’t travel through walls, bags or pockets. While this will limit many applications, de Bevilacqua points out it also brings security advantages. “There’s no interference with electromagnetic waves, meaning it could be used in airplanes and in surgeries,” she says. “You can provide lights and information together to help without any interference to the machinery. This is for sure the future.”