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Vision from radio, data from light


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Two indoor phenomena that we take for granted every day are indoor lighting and radio waves. We depend on light to move around a room and avoid obstacles. Radio waves power the wireless communications that deliver data to our devices via Wi-Fi and other standards. Over the past few years, though, research has been developing on how these ubiquitous presences can increasingly play in the other’s traditional park — using light for data transmission and radio for object detection.

In a broader sense, this has been going on for decades. Even before the short-lived phenomenon of “beaming” business cards among PDAs using infrared technology, people used infrared-based remotes to control their TVs. And anyone who has ever received a speeding ticket or had an X-ray has experienced the results of using radio waves for object detection. However, companies developing newer technologies are taking on these tasks with greater performance than used in these older examples.

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In the radio space, Vayyar is one of the companies working on advanced object imaging sensor that does not require a camera. Its chip offers dozens of transceivers that enable it to process high-resolution 3D images. One advantage to this approach over using a camera include the ability to see through materials, enabling the imaging of obstructed objects as well as a better-concealed placement of the sensing device. Another is that Vayyar’s technology works regardless of lighting or weather conditions. The company also claims that its power and size requirements are minimal.

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Anyone who has ever received a speeding ticket or had an X-ray has experienced the results of using radio waves for object detection.

All told, it’s not surprising that the company is targeting the smart home as one of its main markets, where the placement and power requirements of security cameras has inspired companies such as Netgear and Butterflye to require bulky cameras to avoid the need of close proximity to an outlet. The technology could also be used in caring for older seniors in theTruSense monitoring scenario I wrote about last September, monitoring presence and even vital signs with enhanced privacy and no need for wearables. There could also be applications not usually associated with smart home monitoring, such as the detection of bugs or vermin within walls.

Read also: Slow Wi-Fi? This new crazy-fast infrared network cracks 40Gbps

The car provides another potential market, including identifying drivers (for as long as they’re around) for personalized settings, recognizing babies left in cars, and optimizing front-seat occupant positions for airbag deployment in the event of a collision. Object detection has, of course, been a key feature of robots from vacuums on up — and the company claims that it can provide a 3D scan of breast tissue that can identify tumors in under five seconds.

Vayyar is sill recruiting device makers, and, while its pricing is not public, there are several reasons why products using its technology might cost significantly more than alternatives to its technology.

Unlike Vayyar, the companies behind Li-Fi are supporting an embryonic industry standard. First presented at a TED conference in 2011, but worked on in corporate R&D labs before that, the technology data transmission uses the full spectrum of light — visible, infrared, and ultraviolet — but requires the use of LEDs for now. And while it has been worked on since 2006 by companies including Huawei and Samsung, pureLiFi has been one of the first to commercialize it.

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The idea of ceiling lights providing fast data transmission sounds alluring at first. After all, virtually all rooms have lights. Why not use them them for data as well? But there are a range of limitations. While Wi-Fi works around the clock, Li-Fi also has issues around how it might work in the dark for, say, streaming a movie in a cinematically lit living room and, in an opposite circumstance, how it deals with interference from the significant light source at the center of our solar system.

Because of these limitations, even pureLiFi discussed its market as a complement to — rather than a replacement for — Wi-Fi. Like Vayyar, pureLiFi is angling to get its technology embedded in devices. Unlike Vayyar, pureLiFi can claim some commercial deployments, but it is on the third generation of product it first introduced in 2013. For the foreseeable future, it seems as if radio waves will continue to dominate delivering our data.

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