Enlightenment for datacomms…
Core business: Visible Light Communications (VLC)
Team members: 4
Proof-of-Concept funding: £400,000
Enlightenment for datacomms
The idea is not new – transmitting data via light – but Harald Haas and Gordon Povey, along with their colleagues Mostafa Afghani and Wasiu Popoola, have bought the concept into the digital age and transformed a bright idea into an exciting new technology – and a new company.
Based in the University of Edinburgh, the D-Light project run by Haas and Povey is being spun out as a company called PureVLC, ready to commercialise and market its system, focusing initially on niche applications such as oil & gas exploration and mines, where the sparks caused by antennae can be a hazard. Another big potential market is providing an alternative to cabling for in-flight entertainment in aircraft. Ultimately, every home and office could also be equipped with the technology, to provide extra bandwidth as well as security.
The “lightbulb” moment for Haas was when he realised that VLC was going to become a key technology thanks to the increasingly widespread use of low-cost LED lightbulbs. Haas, who did his PhD at the University of Edinburgh (1997–99), then worked for Siemens in Munich and became an Associate Professor at Jacobs University in Bremen before returning to Edinburgh in 2007 and becoming Professor of Mobile Communications in 2010, started doing serious research in VLC in 2003. Two years later, he demonstrated the system in action at an exhibition in Bremen, then published a paper describing the science involved. At that time, his system transmitted data over a very short distance at a rate of only a few Mbits per second.
Today, the system is capable of 130Mbits per second over a distance of several metres, using standard LED lightbulbs, in real time, under normal lighting conditions. In fact, the current speed is more than ten times faster than required for a quality video signal, and the error rate is less than one bit per 10,000 bits. The advance, says Haas, is largely down to using “multiple data carriers” simultaneously – sending and receiving multiple streams of data at the same time as correcting any errors.
Povey, now the CEO of PureVLC, the company spun out of D-Light, has known Haas since the late 1990s and the former academic, now a businessman, quickly recognised the commercial potential of Haas's new technology.
“The more I looked at it, the more I got excited,” says Povey. In 2007, Povey was still involved with his own business, Trisent, which was purchased by Artilium in 2008. As an honorary fellow of the University of Edinburgh, with a PhD in mobile communications technology, Povey also saw what Haas needed to transform his “brilliant idea” into a successful product and a profitable company. He also knew they had to find a killer application – a problem the technology could solve, not just technological potential.
“The problem was the spectral efficiency of the existing radio network,” says Povey. Data traffic doubles every year, but scientists struggle to squeeze more out of the available bandwidth. In Povey’s opinion, it is better to market VLC as a complement to WiFi, rather than as a replacement, providing more capacity at much lower cost and also more efficiently – avoiding problems such as “electrosmog,” when signals interfere with each other.
In 2008, Haas submitted an unsuccessful application to Scottish Enterprise for proof- of-concept (PoC) funding. This was a big disappointment, but the next year, with input from Povey, he applied again and this time got the money he needed – approximately £400,000. With this funding, the team has advanced its research and this year formed a company called PureVLC, ready to take on the world.
Povey also says that rather than partnering with datacomms companies or “reinventing the lightbulb,” D-Light aims to partner with the lightbulb manufacturers, providing added value to
their products, adding VLC capabilities to the silicon “real estate” on standard lightbulbs without increasing power consumption or costs.
According to Haas and Povey, “every LED lightbulb can become a high-speed WiFi as well as a high-efficiency light source.” And the company is well onits way to turning this idea into a commercial product – and a successful new business.
VLC: How it works
Visible Light Communications (VLC) works by modulating standard LED lightbulbs (i.e. varying intensity) without interfering with the primary function of lighting, controlling the light source to send out a signal then using a detector to receive it. Eventually the system will be an integral part of the lightbulb, added to the electronics already built into standard LED lightbulbs.
VLC: The benefits
> Low power consumption
> Does not cause electromagnetic interference (EMI)
> Does not use valuable regulated RF spectrum
> Uses standard, low-cost, easy-to-install, long-life white LEDs
> No health implications
> Security – signals don’t travel through walls