Bring back IrDA

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

With all the buzz around optical data transfer technology development lately, especially in light of the push to empower small, low-power intelligent devices for the Internet of Things (IoT). What many forget is that there was and is a technology that is well-suited for final-feet connection between intelligent devices in close proximity to one another, Infrared Data. The IrDA protocol was initially created in 1993 by a consortium of companies to perform the specific task of near-field inter-device communication. Maybe it’s time to blow the dust off the tech and see if it can be brought up to date.

Obviously there are considerations to be made in determining if this tech can be made useful, but the results would be worth it if successful. IR transceiver tech is extremely mature, and transceivers are tiny, robust, and efficient. Acceptance angle and line-of-sight are issues, but in a smart-facility environment where data is being beamed and scanned from fixtures this is not a serious issue as long as the device is in the open being used. Data rate is a concern, but just as Zigbee demonstrated its utility in targeted application spaces, IrDA communications can fill a tremendous gap in application spaces such as fitness wearables and other specific-purpose devices.

Some of the issues with IrDA had more to do with the business environment than the technology. The IrDA itself was a big, freewheeling group that didn’t manage the technology strongly enough when it was in its heyday. Many manufacturers fielded inadequate solutions based on the tech, and the enforcement of such transgressions was poor (anyone with anecdotes to the contrary will be recognized). Some inter-device functionalities were downplayed or ignored at a time when such functionalities would have given the tech a new lease on life. A vivid memory of mine is being at a (formerly) major film and photo technology manufacturer’s technology seminar where they couldn’t get two cameras to send an image from one to the other.

Properly done, IrDA is an excellent tech. Toys are a good way to see good tech in action, and the famous Furby child’s toy had an IrDA transceiver in its forehead, which it used for things like synchronized action between two Furbies placed next to one another. Anyone over a certain age remembers when IrDA was the best way to send a telephone number from one cell phone to another. It is no large leap to see IrDA in household sensors, fitness devices, and office equipment today.

This is not to say we should ignore new developments in optical data transmission, we should only be careful not to re-invent the wheel just because we didn’t like what the first one was made out of. Using legacy technology such as infrared data transmission will empower us on many levels while providing bridges to other, more advanced optical data technologies.