Tom Higgison, IP Projects Manager at Edinburgh Research and Innovation, outlines the scope of innovation in electronics seen at the University of Edinburgh, from the Wolfson Institute to the Li-Fi R&D Centre.
In the past 40 years, advances in electronics made possible by a series of inventions and innovations arising from the University of Edinburgh, have made a significant impact on the Information and Communication Technologies industry, as well as on the lives of anyone using an electronic device.
Edinburgh’s influence started when the Wolfson Institute spun-out to become Wolfson Microelectronics Ltd. The company initially built its reputation as a leader in the custom design of integrated circuits but changed strategy in 1996 to become a fabless semiconductor company. This inspired re-positioning enabled the company to become a global provider of high definition audio technology to many of the world’s leading manufacturers of consumer electronic devices. In 2003, the company listed on the London Stock exchange with an initial value of £214 milion.
[Note: Wolfson has recently been acquired by Cirrus Logic in a deal worth £291 million.]
Another major microelectronics innovation emanating from the University in 1995 came with the formation of VLSI Vision Ltd, pioneers in the development of CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) image sensor technology. The growth of camera-based products in the 1990s helped establish CMOS as the mainstream technology for digital imaging sensors. VLSI Vision led the way in developing the world’s first ‘single chip’ CMOS video camera and became the first Scottish University spin-out company to be listed on the UK Stock Exchange in 1995.The company was acquired by STMicroelectronics in 1999, helping ST become one of the world’s leading producers of cost-effective, highly integrated CMOS cameras. In 2008, Professor Denyer, Dr David Renshaw and the other CMOS camera inventors were awarded the prestigious Rank Prize in Optoelectronics for their achievements.
The legacy of these pioneering technology companies can be seen in the numerous microelectronics companies to emerge from the University of Edinburgh in the years that have followed including:
MicroEmissive Displays Ltd, a joint spin-out with Edinburgh Napier University in 1999, developed P-OLED-based microdisplays. Amongst its many distinctions, the company was named European Semiconductor Start-Up of the Year 2004, and won the inaugural Emerging Technologies Award of the Institution of Engineering and Technology in 2005. Its first microdisplay was named “the world’s smallest colour TV screen” in the Guinness Book of World Records of 2004.
Established in 2001, Critical Blue Ltd developed a pioneering flexible, automated system design solution for the semiconductor industry. The company’s Cascade Co-processor Synthesis Tool was recognised as “Best Wireless Design Tool” at the Wireless Systems Design 2004 Industry Awards. The company is now a respected partner to the mobile computing sector.
It has been the mobile phone revolution that has created the foremost opportunities for the University of Edinburgh’s electronics experts to put the ‘smart’ into smartphones. Data from International Data Corporation shows global shipments of smartphones exceeded one billion in 2013, with a further seven billion units expected over the next five years, representing 45 new phones every second.
sensewhere Ltd was established in 2010 to commercialise ground-breaking crowd-mapping technology which overcomes the technical challenges of indoor positioning, providing users with their exact location via a smartphone without the use of GPS. This cost-effective and dynamic use of radio frequencies results in highly-accurate indoor location data that is valuable to social networkers, device manufacturers, and retailers.
The same research group led by Professor Tughrul Arslan established Sofant Technologies Ltd in 2012, commercialising advanced antenna technology targeted to improve the efficiency of smartphones, tablets and other devices.
Also in 2012, another spin-out company from the University signalled the start of a new revolution in mobile communications to tackle the unintended consequence of increased mobile internet usage – the spectrum crunch. pureLiFi Ltd has developed light-based wireless communications technology that utilises LED light bulbs to transmit data faster than current, congested Wi-Fi systems. Their vision is that this ‘Li-Fi’ technology is a more secure and reliable way of sending and receiving wireless data, especially for products such as smartphones. The technology can be extended to situations where the use of standard radio frequencies is restricted, such as petrochemical plants, hospitals and aircrafts.
The term ‘Li-Fi’ was coined by Professor Harald Haas in 2011 when he demonstrated publically for the first time, a device that could transmit high-speed data using a standard LED light bulb. In normal LED illumination applications, a constant current is applied and a constant stream of photons is emitted producing visible light. However, because LEDs are semi-conductor devices, the current and hence the optical output can be modulated at high speeds beyond that perceptible to the eye. Such signals can be detected by a photodetector and converted back to electrical current. The variation in electrical current at the detector is a representation of the original data signal, and can therefore be used to transmit data to a computer or mobile device.
The growth in use of LED lighting has created the opportunity to use Li-Fi technology to access data at speeds of 100s of Mbps and beyond. What’s more the visible light spectrum is plentiful, free to use and unconstrained by licensing or regulation. TIME magazine described Li-Fi as among the top 50 inventions of 2011 and Huffington Post listed it among 18 ground-breaking ideas to watch in 2012.
Li-Fi R&D Centre
In order to grow the development of this ground breaking technology, the University of Edinburgh has created the Li-Fi R&D Centre to conduct leading-edge research in collaboration with, and on behalf of industry. It aims to accelerate society’s adoption of Li-Fi and emerging wireless technology through engagement with major industrial partners, to fully harness the commercial and innovative potential of Li-Fi, and to help establish a major new £5 billion ($8.5 billion) Li-Fi industry by 2018.
With its partners and collaborators, the centre is exploring all aspects of Li-Fi communication from novel devices, through to the integration of Li-Fi access points in agile heterogeneous 5G and 6G networks enabled by emerging software defined networking infrastructures. Through the Li-Fi R&D Centre, the University of Edinburgh continues its impressive tradition of innovating in electronic technologies which go on to achieve prominence in mainstream applications impacting on many facets of the modern world.