What is Wi-Fi Direct? Here’s everything you need to know

There’s a wireless connection that’s used by all kinds of people and all sorts of devices, but hardly anyone talks about it: It’s called Wi-Fi Direct, and it’s been enabling versatile, peer-to-peer wireless connections for almost ten years.

What is Wi-Fi Direct? What can it do? Here’s what you need to know.

Wi-Fi Direct defined

Wi-Fi Direct is a connection that allows for device-to-device communication, linking devices together without a nearby centralized network. One device acts as an access point, and the other device connects to it using WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) and WPA/WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security protocols. The standard was developed and incorporated in devices in the early 2000s.

“Wait, that sounds like Bluetooth,” might be your response, and while the technologies may look similar at a glance, there are some crucial differences. One of the most important is that Wi-Fi Direct can handle more information at higher speeds than Bluetooth — around ten times the rate in optimal conditions. This increase makes Direct a great choice when a peer-to-peer connection needs to transmit data-rich content, like a high-resolution image or a video — or when a Wi-Fi network is down.

One of the most significant advantages of Wi-Fi Direct is how versatile it can be where there’s no Wi-Fi network to act as a go-between for devices. Multiple devices can link to each other and share important files in casual settings or desperate circumstances alike, without the security worries (and time-consuming process) that come with connecting to a hub or central network first.

You can often tell when a device offers Direct, because, when you are searching, it will pop up with a wireless network of its own, usually one that starts with “DIRECT” followed by a product name or number.

Devices supported by Wi-Fi Direct

Wi-Fi Direct has been available to consumers nearing on a decade now thanks to the 2011 Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) update that included guidelines for the feature. Now the world is filled with compatible devices, including some that you might not have expected. Android devices have supported Direct since Android 2.3, and Apple devices have had it since iOS 7 (although Apple markets the feature under its own names, the familiar “AirDrop” and “Airplay”).

There are also a lot of entertainment devices that make use of Direct to stream content or screencast from a mobile device. Chromecast, Roku, and Xbox all have it, and many smart TVs offer Wi-Fi Direct connections as well. There are many peripherals that provide wireless connections, which may use Wi-Fi Direct instead of Bluetooth. That includes wireless headsets with high fidelity audio, wireless printers, and even accessories like keyboards.

How exactly Wi-Fi Direct connections are created can vary between devices. Some devices may have you scan a QR code. So have you enter a numerical PIN. Several devices have you press physical buttons to initiate a connection. Over time, as security has grown more critical, more devices use a combination of these techniques, and fewer devices simply connect automatically.

What people use Wi-Fi Direct for

Some of the most common uses of Wi-Fi Direct these days include:

Fast file sharing: Direct is an excellent way to quickly share large files with a friend or team when setting up wired connections isn’t feasible.

Photo printing on wireless printers: Direct can handle a large amount of wireless information, making it ideal for serious wireless printing jobs.

Screencasting and screen sharing: From playing mobile games on a big screen to sharing family photos on your TV or digital portrait, Wi-Fi Direct is used for all sorts of screen sharing tasks.

Playing games together: If everyone has the same game on their phones, they can connect with Direct and play along even if there’s no Wi-Fi around.

Speedy syncing: Some devices will also use Wi-Fi Direct to sync their information and update their media. This feature can make the process much faster, especially if it has to add a lot of new media at the same time (think about updating old music playlists, for example).

Enabling NFC: We’re used to thinking of NFC as its own wireless technology, but these quick connections tend to use Wi-Fi Direct to transmit information.

Wi-Fi Direct and the Internet of Things

From what we’ve explained so far, you might be thinking that Wi-Fi Direct sounds like a suitable technology for the Internet of Things. There was talk of using Wi-Fi Direct for smart home devices, especially in the late 2000s/early 2010s as IoT connectivity was quickly evolving. Today, Wi-Fi Direct is rarely seen on the Internet of Things. The two technologies took very different paths.

Wi-Fi Direct is all about connections between two devices that aren’t part of a wireless network but exist in a separate space of their own. However, the Internet of Things has become dominated by Wi-Fi networks, with older connections technologies like Zigbee and, yes, Wi-Fi Direct being quickly left behind. That happened because today’s smart devices need to be highly interconnected with each other to enable more complex scenes or management, and easily accessed from a distance by people who may not be at home. Wi-Fi Direct couldn’t cut it.

There’s also another reason Wi-Fi direct isn’t well suited for smart devices: It has some security issues, which come to the forefront when automatic connections are enabled. And we should talk a bit about that.

Wi-Fi Direct and security

As we mentioned, Wi-Fi Direct does offer some security advantages when compared with other peer-to-peer connections. However, it also has its share of security risks. Direct can be particularly risky when it’s used while a device is connected to another network at the same time. The Direct connection, especially if using the older WPS protocol, can be attacked with brute force hacking techniques.

If someone gets access to a device via Wi-Fi Direct, they may also be able to access other connected networks, and ultimately, a lot of private data now open to theft. But how can you make sure that your Direct connection is safe, but also challenging to take advantage of?

First, look up how your device secures Direct and what you can do to make it safer. There are two different types of Wi-Fi Direct connections, temporary and persistent. Persistent connections store connection data on the devices so they can connect back again automatically whenever necessary. These persistent connections are less safe and easier to access, so they should be strictly limited to things like at-home printer use, and only when necessary. Temporary connections cannot reconnect on their own, and need the same steps — PINs, sign-ins, etc.– every time, making them more secure. As time has gone on, more advanced Direct services use rotating PINs to help prevent more common attack methods.

In general, try to stick with newer, safer Wi-Fi Direct connections, and try to avoid connecting to a device in a public area, even if it’s with a friend. Staying current on mobile hacking vulnerabilities is also important. This recent bug in Linux devices, for example, allows hackers to easily access mobile devices over Wi-Fi Direct if their Wi-Fi capabilities are turned on — sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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