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TechMinute: Visible Light Communication

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Overhead lights help you find your way through buildings. But, did you know they could literally send you a map? Thanks to visible light communication (VLC), someday soon LED light fixtures might be talking to your smartphone.

Using visible light to send messages is not a new idea. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell believed his photophone was technologically superior to the wired telephone. He even wanted to name one of his daughters Photophone.

It may have taken another century, but a descendant of the photophone is a growing technology. As the Internet of Things (IoT) trend gains momentum and more wireless devices need to communicate with each other, they may just use the lights above your head to share digital messages.

How does VLC work? Digital information is transmitted by LED fixtures, connected to the internet, that flash at extremely high speeds. The flashing light is imperceptible to the human eye, but it can be read by any device with a light sensor, such as the camera on your smartphone.

Visible light communication could be an alternative to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Because it’s location-specific, the technology is ideal for sending data that is relevant to your smartphone’s exact position inside a building. For example, VLC could be used to:

  • Guide travelers who are walking through an airport
  • Track patients through different departments in a hospital
  • Provide information about the artwork you’re viewing in a museum
  • Send coupons for the products you’re looking at in a store

There are still some hurdles to overcome before VLC technology gains widespread use, but several companies are already developing the technology. Someday, the lights above your head will be able to lead the way based on your exact location.

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