Interview: Father of LiFi brings web out of the dark ages

Harald Haas has been christened the 'father' of LiFi, a term he coined and a technology he has introduced using the visible light spectrum to enable high-speed wireless data communication and internet access.
Harald Haas is inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, who investigated the possibility of building a photophone using sunlightHarald Haas is inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, who investigated the possibility of building a photophone using sunlight
Harald Haas is inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, who investigated the possibility of building a photophone using sunlight

The German-born professor, who is also co-founder and chief scientific officer of Edinburgh-based PureLiFi, says the title is an “honour” and he sees limitless applications for the invention, which uses light to transmit information at very high speeds. It is similar to WiFi but without using traditional radio frequency signals, where the spectrum is far smaller.

A real “game-changer” in spreading the technology’s message was Haas’s first TED talk, which was filmed in the Scottish capital in July 2011 and showed him connecting to the internet using a $3 light bulb.

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The simple-to-grasp but powerful demonstration was so effective that it has now been viewed more than 2.4 million times, and he says people’s eyes light up when they witness the technology working.

“You see that there’s a change in attitude, and they suddenly see all the opportunities… The power of LiFi is that people easily understand what it is and how it works and that light can transmit data.”

The talk also had unexpected consequences, prompting a man living in a remote Highland location to email Haas asking if he could provide him with internet access, because he had been quoted £10,000 for a connection.

“I want to go back to him at some point, when we’ve developed the technology further, and say, ‘I can offer you this now for maybe a hundredth of your quoted price.’ ”

In fact, availability was one of the four key challenges in wireless communication flagged during the TED talk, along with capacity, efficiency, and security.

Haas says LiFi, which was listed among the 50 best inventions in Time magazine in 2011, can be put to use in everything from smartphone access to the internet via, say, lights on a plane, to enabling communication by subsea, remotely operated vehicles with the light they use to navigate.

Additionally, it has safety benefits for, say, petrochemical plants, where radio frequencies can generate dangerous antenna sparks, and security advantages for the likes of financial services, given that it is very localised, while conventional WiFi radio waves can be far-reaching and “every single connection is a security risk”.

PureLiFi was spun out in January 2012 from the University of Edinburgh, where research into visible light communication had been in development since 2008.

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Haas started working in the field in 2003, having studied electrical engineering in Nuremburg, Germany, and he was subsequently awarded a scholarship under the Heinz Nixdorf Programme, named after the computer pioneer.

This allowed him to spend a year in Mumbai, India, with his interest at the time in wireless communications, and he explains that the experience was something of an eye-opener.

“I grew up in a little village in Bavaria. There are things you do and things you don’t do, and then you go to India and all the values are thrown up in the air. That has completely changed my attitude and then developed the desire to stay abroad and to learn more from other cultures.”

He worked with Siemens to build the first GSM (global system for mobile communication) network for Mumbai, and later decided to move into academia. He opted to go to the University of Edinburgh, with his love of the outdoors a key factor in coming to Scotland, and completed his PhD in wireless communications in 2001.

After a spell back in Germany, working for Siemens in Munich and taking up an academic post in Bremen, he returned to the Scottish capital in 2007, and “that’s where the LiFi story began”. He started a proof of concept project, developing the technology and leading to the TED talk.

He holds two positions at the University of Edinburgh, namely chair of mobile communications and director of the LiFi Research and Development Centre, with the latter located in the Alexander Graham Bell Building.

In an incredible coincidence, before he invented the telephone we know today, Graham Bell had looked into developing a “photophone” using reflected sunlight to communicate conversations.

Haas notes: “It’s very similar to what we do with LiFi. He thought it was his greatest invention.”

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Continuing Bell’s work in a way, the plan is to see LiFi reach widespread use, and Haas foresees it becoming an everyday part of our lives within the next three years, with the “fundamental technology” ready now.

PureLiFi itself says the global LiFi market is on track to be a $113 billion industry by 2022, and Haas wants the company to grow as big as ARM Holdings, which designs the chips used in 95 per cent of smartphones globally and was snapped up by Japan’s SoftBank in a £24bn deal earlier this year.

Haas says the plan is to develop PureLii into a “very strong” future hardware-based, multi-billion-pound company. Helping drive this has been the completion of a funding round announced in July, led by Singapore-based investment firm Temasek and bringing its amount raised to date to more than $10m.

The capital was to support the development and commercialisation of its proprietary technology, and Haas said at the time that it marked a key step towards “unlocking the grand LiFi vision”.

The funding also came on the back of the completion of the development and production of its LiFi-X product, the world’s first mobile LiFi dongle, which Haas says marks a crucial step towards mass-market adoption.

“It’s exactly the same sort of development as we had with WiFi,” he says, with plans now to miniaturise, integrating the hardware into a microchip that can be installed in smart devices including fridges and ovens as the “internet of things” tightens its grip.

And with rumours that Apple is incorporating LiFi capability into future products, the sky seems to be the limit.

However, Haas admits that the biggest challenge in its expansion is not around the technology, but rather human nature’s tendency to be hesitant about adopting something new.

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It therefore needs pioneering technology enthusiasts to get on board, says Haas, whose achievements also include being awarded the prestigious Established Career Fellowship from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

He has more than 30 patents under his belt and a further 40-odd pending, and points out that the technology has received a lot of global interest.

Haas sees vast opportunities for the technology to drive economic development, with an estimated 4.3 billion people currently having no access to the internet.

In addition to targeting India, PureLiFi would like to expand into Africa, but he notes that research on interest in the work revealed that this was largest in relatively hi-tech countries, led by China and followed by the US and then Europe.

However, as the case of the man in the Highlands proves, there are people closer to home who could also benefit from the technology. “Wherever there is no access to the internet… I think we can provide a solution,” he says.

While the technology has not yet become part of our everyday lives, moves in this direction are already well under way. Haas says the firm has worked with the likes of Cisco and Lucibel, with the latter creating the first LiFi-enabled LED product of its kind, which is being incorporated into what is said to be the world’s first Li-Fi office at the Paris headquarters of Sogeprom, the property arm of French lender Société Générale.

PureLiFi’s own plans include further fundraising, dependent on the development of the commercialisation of its technology, while its headcount looks to grow from about 20 currently as it scales up.

That said, having highlighted hurdles in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, he believes it would be a “major disadvantage” if it can’t recruit the talent it needs. “If you look at our workforce we have people from everywhere in Europe.”

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As LiFi moves towards what Haas sees as a “cleaner, a greener, and even a brighter future,” he looks at his dream for the technology in 20 years’ time. “I would like to see LiFi in every LED light,” he says. “I would like to see it in our desk lamps… in our cars, in our home appliances, in our planes. I would like to see a fully connected world where a lot of innovations are based on that technology.”