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HTG Explains: What is Wi-Fi Direct and How Does It Work?

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More and more new devices are using Wi-Fi Direct. Wi-Fi Direct allows two devices to establish a direct, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection without requiring a wireless router. Wi-Fi becomes a way of communicating wirelessly, like Bluetooth.

Wi-Fi Direct is similar in concept to “ad-hoc” Wi-Fi mode. However, unlike an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection, Wi-Fi Direct includes an easier way to automatically discover nearby devices and connect to them.

The Concept

You may already have a device using Wi-Fi Direct. For example, the Roku 3 comes with a remote control that it communicates with using Wi-Fi Direct rather than using an older IR blaster or Bluetooth connection. The remote control doesn’t actually connect to your wireless router. Instead, the Roku creates a new Wi-Fi network that the remote control connects to, and the two communicate over their own little network.

You’ll see this as a Wi-Fi network named DIRECT-roku-### when in range of the Roku. You won’t be able to connect if you try because you won’t have the security key. The security key is automatically negotiated between the remote control and the Roku.

This gives devices an easy way to communicate with each other using standard Wi-Fi protocols. You don’t have to go through any unwieldy set-up procedures. At no point do you have to enter your Wi-Fi passphrase into the remote control, as the connection process happens automatically.

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Other Uses for Wi-FI Direct

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The Miracast wireless display standard also uses Wi-Fi Direct, although this doesn’t engender much confidence, as Miracast seems so incompatible between different devices. Peripherals, such as mice and keyboards, could also communicate via Wi-Fi Direct. Wi-Fi Direct could be used to remotely connect to a wireless printer without requiring the printer to join an existing wireless network.

Android also includes built-in support for Wi-Fi Direct, although few applications are using it just yet.

Many devices are already using Wi-Fi with built-in Wi-Fi radios. Rather than build in different hardware, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct allows them to communicate wirelessly without requiring any additional specialized hardware. It adds additional functionality without requiring different hardware.

How It Works

Wi-Fi Direct uses a number of standards to accomplish its functions:

  • Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi Direct uses the same Wi-Fi technology that Wi-Fi-enabled devices use to communicate with wireless routers. A Wi-Fi Direct device can essentially function as an access point, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices can connect directly to it. This is already possible with ad-hoc networking, but Wi-Fi Direct extends this feature with easy setup and discovery features.
  • Wi-Fi Direct Device and Service Discovery: This protocol gives Wi-Fi Direct devices a way to discover each other and the services they support before connecting. For example. a Wi-Fi Direct device could see all compatible devices in the area and then narrow down the list to only devices that allow printing before displaying a list of nearby Wi-Fi Direct-enabled printers.
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  • Wi-Fi Protected Setup: When two devices connect to each other, they automatically connect via Wi-Fi Protected Setup, or WPS. We can only hope that device makers use a secure connection method for this WPS connection and not the extremely insecure WPS PIN method.
  • WPA2: Wi-Fi Direct devices use WPA2 encryption, which is the most secure way of encrypting Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi Direct may also be referred to as Wi-Fi peer-to-peer or Wi-Fi P2P, as it functions in peer-to-peer mode. Wi-Fi Direct devices connect directly to each other rather than through a wireless router.

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What Can You Actually Use It For?

But what can you actually use Wi-Fi Direct for at the moment? Well, if a device and its peripherals are designed to use Wi-Fi Direct, they’ll use Wi-Fi Direct without you having to think about it. The Roku 3 does this, as we mentioned above.

While Wi-Fi Direct is theoretically supposed to be a standard that allows multiple types of devices supporting the Wi-Fi Direct standard to communicate with each other, this hasn’t really happened just yet.

For example, you may have two new laptops, each advertised as supporting Wi-Fi Direct. You might assume there’d be a way to set up easy file-sharing between them using Wi-Fi Direct, but you’d be wrong at the moment. There’s also no easy way to connect an Android smartphone to a Windows laptop and actually do much just yet. For now, Wi-Fi Direct isn’t a feature you should really concern yourself with. In the future, this may become a more useful standard.


Wi-Fi Direct is a promising feature that’s already working in the real world. However, it has a long way to go before it’s actually an interoperable standard normal people can rely on. At the moment, it’s just a way for specifically designed products to communicate with each other. For devices that require less power, Bluetooth Low Energy will be superior — but Wi-Fi Direct has a fighting chance against higher-powered Bluetooth devices.

Image Credit: miniyo73 on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/1/14

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