May 2, 2012 at 8:56 PM ET
Researchers in Taiwan have created a network using common handheld lasers that rivals Wi-Fi and USB cables for transfer speed. And the entire setup cost only $600.
The researchers did it by modifying a normal laser pointer, allowing it to turn on and off 500 million times a second. That sounds impressive, but the ability to do this is a fundamental aspect of lasers, making them capable of sending out light just a few photons at a time. They then pointed these modified lasers at a detector about 33 feet away and set the on-and-off states to correspond with 1s and 0s.
Incredibly, it worked without a hitch, and by using two lasers they were able to send a billion bits per second, with an incredibly low rate of error. That's around 120 megabytes per second, twice as fast as most USB cables and Wi-Fi will go.
This type of light-based communication has been demonstrated before, but this is the cheapest and fastest it's been seen. At home it might not have a place (Wi-Fi and cables are more practical), but in hospitals, labs, and other areas where radio transmissions aren't allowed, this could be an extremely useful tool.
The research, led by Hai-Han Lu at National Taipei University, was published in vol 20 of Optics Express. It's not likely we'll be seeing laser-based networks going up any time soon, but this is a powerful demonstration of their practicality and cost-effectiveness.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.