We are in the midst of a lighting revolution that will change our concept of what it means your lives. Today, when we think of lighting, we think primarily about having enough light to be able to engage in activities no matter what time of day it is. Those of us with an artistic bent may think about mood lighting, and there are some people who make sure that they have full spectrum lights in the winter as a means to counter Seasonal Affective Disorder. To this short list of visibility, aesthetics, and health, one might add attention (spotlighting), communication (as with a marquee), and industrial use (for instance, for growing microorganisms such as algae I). For designers, characteristics such as efficiency, flexibility, and productivity might come into the mix.
The emphasis today—and I see this as the starting point for smart lighting–is on energy efficiency. Incandescent bulbs are becoming historical artifacts as compact fluorescent bulbs, LED’s, and other solutions aimed at reducing energy costs come to the fore. (One reason there is a focus on lighting here is because it is one of the most easily changed components of our power infrastructure. Because incandescent bulbs fail regularly, replacement with components that are more efficient is already part of our daily lives. Compare this with the huge effort of installing optical fiber to individual homes.) The prices for alternative bulbs continue to become more reasonable, and the quality of the light from the use has improved over time. Most consumers can already see the advantage in making the switch.
Now imagine replacing current bulbs with bulbs that include sensors and the ability to change wavelengths and to pulse light for communications.
Lighting systems with these attributes are already under development. Certainly, making every lightbulb “aware” of whether it is needed (by detecting the presence of people in rooms) seems like a good idea. We already have systems that to this in many public buildings because the payoff in savings comes quickly. As prices drop to the point where individuals are replacing bulbs in their home would choose this feature, it will become more widely adopted. But this just scratches the surface of having responsible with sensors.
Such bulbs or lighting systems might also automatically adjust to intensify when we are reading a book or working on a craft project. They could be used to highlight part in the room, change within the business environment to improve productivity, and even spotlight tasks that need to be done—perhaps, reminding your child that he or she needs to get started on homework. We know that the wavelengths of light have an impact on our moods and our circadian rhythms. Work is already shown that changing lighting can help with insomnia and adjust day/night awareness for Alzheimer’s patients.
Beyond the flexibility of changing presence and wavelengths of lighting, pulsing light more rapidly than humans can detect can provide a local communication system that can enable a simple, independent means for sending data between smart things and, ultimately, computing systems. As an example, your kitchen light might interrogate your refrigerator to find out if it is detecting spoiling food. It could then let the lighting in an adjacent room, say your study, know that the milk is going sour. In the lights in that room might be able to reach your laptop and send a message to your smart phone. This, of course, is a trivial example. It barely touches upon the potential for integrating lighting into an Internet of Things, taking advantage of an ubiquitous resource to enable device to device communications.
Overall, as we move from simple replacement bulbs to a greater understanding of the possibilities of smart lighting, we are likely to see transformations that are difficult to imagine today. People still call the electric bill the light bill, because, originally, electricity was the primary use of this simple source of power. Now the light itself is on the verge of becoming a powerful means to re-create our environments and make them more functional and adaptable. Just as electricity created the possibility for a wide range of devices that touch our lives, smart lighting will enable new capabilities–in monitoring our health, providing for our security, maintaining our environments, and increasing efficiency and productivity–that will change the way we see the spaces in which we spend our lives.