Wi-Fi Direct is an emerging wireless standard that allows you to create a create a connection between any two devices without going through a wireless router. Want to create a Wi-Fi hotspot, connect your computer or smartphone to your printer or stream movies from your tablet to your television? There is a good chance that Wi-Fi Direct is doing the heavy lifting.
Seems simple, right? Well, the basic concept is not all that complex. Wi-Fi Direct has been commercially viable since about 2010. The standard is now starting to mature and be adopted by gadgets everywhere, like new smartphones, digital accessories like set-top television boxes (or “smart” TVs) and automobile vehicle systems. Wi-Fi Direct is creating new capabilities to share media, such as how Apple uses AirDrop to transfer pictures, documents, music and video from one user to another on its Mac OS X computers and iPhone/iPads running the new iOS 7.
Smartphones have been able to support Wi-Fi Direct for a while now. The capabilities are starting to expand as operating systems like Android 4.3, iOS 7 and Windows Phone 8 begin to grow and realize that there is a whole world of devices out there that can be controlled through a smartphone or tablet.
As the technology, security and compatibility of Wi-Fi Direct has matured, companies are starting to come up with more advanced uses of the standard. This is where it starts to get interesting.
How Wi-Fi Direct Works
Imagine that you are in your house or apartment. In this day and age, there is a pretty good chance that you have a Wi-Fi router that acts as your de facto home network. It is the hub of all things connected in your home. The router is the hub, the trunk of the tree with many branches. Those branches can’t really interact with each other except through by going back through the router.
That router hub is essentially the gateway to connectivity, called a wireless access point (WAP). What Wi-Fi Direct does is cut out the trunk of the network. Instead of going back to the hub, two devices using Wi-Fi Direct are given limited wireless access points. The setup for Wireless Direct is much simpler than adding a device to a traditional Wi-Fi network, often taking only the tap of a button or entering a personal identification number or code that is entered once. In this way, Wi-Fi Direct works much like Bluetooth, just with a longer range and more stability.
For instance, if I want to hook my PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone to a Wi-Fi Direct-enabled printer, I just have to click a button once the printer, tell it to find a device (my PC, for instance) and tell it to connect. On the computer, a dialog box will pop up in the printer application and I can enable the connection.
Wi-Fi Direct does this by creating a connection between two devices using a protocol called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). The Wi-Fi Protected Setup standard is what makes connecting the devices much simpler than adding devices to a traditional wireless access point. WPS was originally created for users to easily set up security for their Wi-Fi networks without being wireless security wizards. Additional protocols have been created to make Wi-Fi Direct more useful such as Universal Plug And Play, Zero Configuration Networking and Devices Profile for Web Services.
What Wi-Fi Direct does is use software within those devices that can perform a variety of functions both simple and complex (a wireless mouse being simple, a smartphone that can share its hotspot, share streaming media and files being complex). This is done through a concept called “software access points” (Soft AP). The Soft AP makes it possible for a device to act both as the both the access point that the Wi-Fi comes from and the client that uses it.
How Wi-Fi Direct Is Changing Connected Devices
The simplest conceptual uses of Wi-Fi Direct are computer accessories. Devices like printers and a wireless computer mouse can employ Wi-Fi Direct as a straight connection from the computer, as opposed to using Bluetooth (which Apple uses for its wireless keyboards and Magic Mouse).
The Internet of Things, where everything and anything can have the capability of connecting to the Internet, will be a boon for Wi-Fi Direct. If an object has Wi-Fi capabilities, it could also have Wi-Fi Direct, which could allow you to control it with your smartphone in the near future. One day you may walk into your connected home, turn on the lights and change the temperature right from your phone, because all your home accessories can connect right to your phone through Wi-Fi Direct.
Apple’s forthcoming AirDrop in its iOS 7 mobile operating system will employ Wi-Fi Direct to be able to share files between two devices anywhere. Google’s Android operating system has had Wi-Fi Direct support since version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and has enabled various functions that users may be familiar with from Samsung Galaxy smartphone commercials (such as sharing pictures with your friends or the gimmicky All Share feature).
What makes Wi-Fi Direct so compelling is the ability to create a virtual network with no central hub, all controlled through your smartphone. For instance, in your home, you could print straight from your smartphone by connecting it to your printer. Or, stream a YouTube video to your smart TV from your smartphone or control your thermostat. At the office, Wi-Fi Direct could enable two employees to share information peer-to-peer without using email or “bumping” phones (which uses a different wireless connection protocol called Near Field Communications).
In essence… connect everything, anywhere and everywhere. No hubs, no trunks or centralized repository of data and connectivity.