A group of UK-based researchers just had a breakthrough in their attempt to develop "visual light communication," a way to transfer data wirelessly over the internet using light bulbs.
Scientists have announced data transfer speeds of more than 10 gigabits — about 10 times faster than a Google Fiber connection — using tiny LEDs that rapidly blink on and off to communicate in binary. The researchers used red, green, and blue micro-LEDs — the colors that make up white light — simultaneously, increasing the amount of information being transferred.
The connection can't penetrate through walls
The emerging technology is being hailed as a low-cost alternative to radio-based wireless internet, but it's uncertain exactly how it would work in practice.
The connection depends on the light traveling from the LEDs to a receiver, but doesn't require a line of sight —the light can bounce off walls and still be effective. The connection also can't penetrate through walls, however, which would seem to limit its applicability. However, scientists say this limitation could actually be a benefit for security, since wide-ranging Wi-Fi connections can be vulnerable to hackers.
Despite the method's limitations, multiple groups have been working on visual light communication for more than 10 years. Earlier this month, a group of scientists in China claimed to have achieved speeds of 150 megabits using light. NASA is also working on a laser-based communications system that allows for internet connectivity between planets.
Update, 4:51PM: The Verge reached Dr. Harald Haas, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who coined the term "li-fi" and worked on the project that produced the record-breaking speeds. He notes that while radio-based wireless connectivity relies on base stations, the infrastructure for light-based connectivity already exists. "The idea is that of this double function," he says. "A lightbulb is not just a light spending unit. It's now a wireless transceiver, light-producing unit, communications device, or a li-fi access point."