Disney's Linux Light Bulbs (Not a "Luxo Jr." Reboot)

Last week, Disney announced its latest project: Linux Light Bulbs. Although it sounds like an adorable animated feature starring our favorite OS, it's actually an exciting new networking technology. Of course, Linux plays a central role.

Linux Light Bulbs uses visible light to communicate between different devices. Integrating the Linux kernel has allowed Disney's researchers to take advantage of Linux's IP support to give their network a protocol that can be used by existing software.

The idea of using light to communicate is not a new one. In fact, it predates most of the communication technologies on which we rely today. The ancient heliograph allowed people to communicate over great distances using simple mirrors and established codes. Of course, in those days, bandwidth was not a big issue. Brief messages about important events or the movements of enemy forces were a lot shorter than the average streaming cat video.

Bandwidth is also a big issue for visual light-based devices. Linux Light Bulbs is able to achieve speeds of 1 KB/second--many thousands of times slower than Wi-Fi. To put that in context, it would take days to download a high-quality photograph, so Linux Light Bulbs is not going to replace Wi-Fi or Bluetooth anytime soon.

Given the rather severe bandwidth limitations of the device, you may wonder why anyone is getting excited over this new technology. But, consider that many applications do not require much bandwidth. For instance, a signal to open a door would require only a few bits of data. There are actually many such systems that currently rely on expensive wired networks. Home automation is a prime example.

What makes Linux Light Bulbs appealing is the way it could piggyback onto existing equipment. Residential and commercial lighting systems are moving toward LED lights, and LEDS are perfect for visible light communications. Taking this into consideration, the cost of adopting this technology could be very low.

Obviously, visible light communications has some severe limitations. For one thing, any obstruction that blocked the line of sight between two devices would break the network at that point. And, visible light devices experience a sharp drop in signal quality as the distance between the devices increases.

However, there are some interesting applications that still could make the technology worthwhile despite these limitations. Disney's researchers have mentioned streetlights that broadcast emergency messages to passing cars concerning accidents, for instance. Also, industry commentators have pointed out other projects showing that broadband performance could become a reality for visible light devices in the future.

Even if it never achieves broad adoption in real-world projects, Disney's Linux Light Bulbs is an interesting proof of concept and a fine example of creative problem solving.