How Light Peak Works

Light Speed

Fiber optics isn't a new technology. At its most basic level, a fiber-optic cable is a glass tube with a reflective material coating the outer surface. If you shoot an intense beam of light down one end of a fiber-optic thread, the light will continue down the thread, bouncing along the inside until it emerges from the other side. If you turn the light off and on, you can communicate through a code. It's a high-tech approach to an old idea that dates back to signaling lanterns.

Instead of communicating in Morse code, fiber optics transmit information in bits. A laser at one end provides the light and a sensor at the other converts the signals into binary data. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) use fiber optics to carry data over their networks. A few provide fiber optic access up to customer homes, meaning those customers can enjoy blazingly fast Internet access. That's because unlike copper wire, which carries electrons to customers, fiber optics aren't limited by the restrictions of matter. Data can travel at the speed of light.

Intel's Light Peak will take advantage of this technology. A special chip is the center of the system. The chip can process multiple protocols. A protocol is a set of instructions that, in a way, are similar to languages. Devices that use a specific protocol don't understand other protocols. By building a chip that can process multiple protocols, Intel hopes to reduce the need for different types of cables and ports.

The lasers that generate the light in Light Peak are vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs). They measure 250 micrometers to a side -- a micrometer is just one-millionth of a meter.

Intel explains that the Light Peak chip will have four fibers. Each fiber will be able to carry 10 gigabits of information each second. Why the multiple fibers? Communication across a fiber optic thread only travels in one direction at any given time. With multiple fibers, communication can travel to and from the chip simultaneously. This will help make data transactions happen at a faster rate.