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Disney researchers shed light on internet of toys

Steve Rogerson
October 1, 2015
Disney Research has taken a major step to creating an internet of toys by using visible light as the basis for communications. The company has demonstrated LEDs that use visible light to talk to each other and the internet and that could become the communications base for toys, as well as smart homes, offices and public buildings.
The scientists at Disney Research and ETH Zurich have demonstrated that light could be a medium for light bulbs to communicate with each other, with objects and with the internet.
Transmitting signals via light is nothing new; Alexander Graham Bell showed that speech could be conveyed with light in the 1880s, years before speech was first transmitted via radio. The Disney researchers, however, have created networking technology that makes it possible for LED lights not only to communicate with each other, but to do so in a way that is compatible with the internet and its technical protocols.
Stefan Mangold, who heads Disney Research's wireless research group, said these advances could give visible light communications (VLC) an important role in the growing internet of things to create smart environments.
"Communication with light enables a true internet of things as consumer devices that are equipped with LEDs but not radio links could be transformed into interactive communication nodes," Mangold said. "We're not just talking about sensors, smartphones and appliances. This easily could include toys that have LEDs, creating an internet of toys in which toys can be accessed, monitored and acted on remotely."
Mangold and his colleagues presented their findings last month at VLCS 15, the ACM workshop on visible light communications in Paris, France.
For the VLC network, the researchers used off-the-shelf commercial LED light bulbs that they then modified so they could send and receive visible light signals. These modifications included a system-on-a-chip running the Linux operating system, a VLC controller module with the protocol software and an additional power supply for the added electronics.
The researchers created software that makes the signals transmitted through this hardware compatible with internet protocols. They were thus able to create networks with a throughput of up to 1kbit/s. These VLC-enabled bulbs could be used to broadcast beacons making it possible to detect the location of objects, linked into a network to route signal traffic or could be used to communicate with objects.
"The ubiquitous presence of LED-based light bulbs that can be enhanced with VLC functionality, and the availability of LED-equipped devices, unleashes a wide range of opportunities and applications," Mangold said.
The research team included: Stefan Schmid, a PhD student at Disney Research and ETH Zurich; Theodoros Bourchas, a research assistant at ETH Zurich and a Disney Research intern; and Thomas Gross, professor of computer science at ETH Zurich.
Disney Research is a network of research laboratories supporting the Walt Disney company. Its purpose is to pursue scientific and technological innovation to advance the company's broad media and entertainment efforts. Vice presidents Jessica Hodgins and Markus Gross manage Disney Research facilities in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Zürich and Boston and work closely with the Pixar and ILM research groups in the San Francisco Bay area. Research topics include computer graphics, animation, video processing, computer vision, robotics, wireless and mobile computing, human-computer interaction, displays, behavioural economics, and machine learning.