Pioneer of digital light

Digitalization is creating entirely new paths and possibilities, and its potential for our company’s core business is huge. What all will be possible with light in the future? Our journey of discovery took us to Garching, Germany, where Gerhard Maierbacher is working on a smart vision.

Turn the light on – and the link to the internet is established. Quickly hold the smartphone in the beam of light and the data begins to flow. What may seem like a scene from a science fiction film is actually what the future will bring in the next five to ten years maximum for research engineer Gerhard Maierbacher. The workspace of this communications engineering expert resembles a physics laboratory. Looking around, the eye is immediately drawn to red buttons that look like buzzers positioned in several places around the room. When pressed, they will cut power to the devices in an emergency situation.

From among the jumble of cables and measuring instruments, Maierbacher pulls out a small, plain-looking square board with LEDs and a chip attached to it. “The basic components for optical data transmission of the future already exist right now,” he says. “Our challenge is to combine them in a practical way and help them reach market maturity.” The technology that Maierbacher refers to is called light fidelity, or LiFi for short. The term’s similarity to WiFi is intentional. In fact, using light to transmit data could soon supplement traditional WiFi – or perhaps even replace it entirely.

Cables and measuring instruments: Maierbacher’s workspace resembles a physics laboratory.

“The digitalized world is growing faster, smarter and more connected – so why not use light as a communication medium?” Maierbacher’s question takes us right to the topic at hand and leads us into an open discussion. He explains his vision to us with obvious enthusiasm. Tiny LEDs or lasers in lighting systems would have the ability to use the light spectrum for extremely high data transfer rates. Simply put, any light could become a hot spot to connect to the internet. This new dimension of light harbors major potential for OSRAM, which is why the Corporate Innovation department recruited the electrical engineer to join the company just under a year ago. Since then, Maierbacher, who was previously employed at the Fraunhofer Institute, has been working in a small team to advance the Optical Wireless Communication (OWC) project.

At the moment, the 40-year-old is busy analyzing and assessing the first prototypes of OWC technology. Several start-ups have already staked out positions in this market, which for many years was shaped by purely theoretical considerations. OWC has awoken the interest of companies and manufacturers, not just at OSRAM. By the end of the year, Maierbacher is scheduled to complete his own test setup in order to more precisely assess OWC technology with regard to potential applications and related requirements.

“Anyone who wants to strike out on a new path has to have the courage to enter unknown territory.” Gerhard Maierbacher, Senior Research Engineer at Corporate Innovation

Internet through a street light

OWC could be used in a number of ways. For one thing, there is the internet mass market, which includes applications for home and the office, as well as communication through smartphones and similar devices. In the smart city of the future, networked street lights could become urban data infrastructure that provides buildings with internet access. “But thanks to its advantages when compared to radio transmission, the technology is also of interest to niche markets,” Maierbacher says. OWC does not send out radio waves, which makes it ideal for use in airplanes or hospitals. On the other hand, light-based communication is not sensitive to electromagnetic interference. As a result, OWC could really shine in production, where such things as electric motors, strong magnetic fields and welding work can quickly disrupt radio links.

The limitation of light, which cannot penetrate through walls, is one challenge that the technology poses. Then again, when seen from the perspective of data security, this is an opportunity, as the electrical engineer explains: “OWC provides the best conditions for high-security conference rooms that no data can leak out of.”

Entering uncharted territory

Though specific OWC applications are beginning to emerge, the technology is still in its infancy. “We are entering completely uncharted territory and have a great amount of development work ahead of us,” Maierbacher says. The results in the months ahead will determine whether or not OSRAM pursues the project in the long term as a profitable business area. Does that cause doubt or fear in Maierbacher? No, on the contrary; the challenge excites his pioneering spirit. “Anyone who wants to strike out on a new path has to have the courage to enter unknown territory,” he says with conviction, before adding with a grin, “my motto is nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It is a clever motto for heading into the digital future.