Connected lighting still needs to find its killer app

Light artists think it’s a great wheeze to link the illumination of a sculpture or building with something separate but related. For instance, the UK Pavilion at the Expo in Milan this month (you should know about this – you’re paying for it) is themed around bees so the 1,000 LEDs increase and decrease in intensity in response to the activites of bees in a beehive in Nottingham.

Similarly, light sculptures have variously changed colour according to air pressure, traffic congestion, tidal movements and footfall in an architecture school. The thing is, the people writing the cheques – such as UK Trade and Investment or your local authority – love these backstories.

         At LightFair, Terralux unveiled what is believed to be the world’s first light that can both detect and deal with farts”

You could, in theory, link changes in the lighting to anything: the number of flat white coffees consumed by bearded lumbersexuals in an East End hipster bar, the migration of wildebeest crossing the Serengeti, the number of times Sepp Blatter is re-elected by his sycophantic freeloading cronies at Fifa.

It’s all technically possible. As my bluff Geordie builder Fred says to me: ‘Ray, we can do anything. Just tell us what you want...’

Knowing what you want is often the difficult bit.

The lighting industry is the same as Fred. It has the technology to do pretty much anything within reason. You can certainly link the brightness of the luminaires to almost anything. For example, the clever lighting team at Manchester Airport have managed to connect the fluorescent luminaires in the piers and baggage reclaim area to their aircraft monitoring system. If a flight lands from Berlin, the light ramps up from 10 per cent to full brightness to accept the arriving passengers.

As well as receiving data, lights can also generate the stuff. You can put a whole host of sensors, cameras and detectors inside a luminaire. After all, lights, being ubiquitous, are the perfect network.

The lighting industry is getting very excited about all this stuff. But there’s one small problem: no-one knows what to do with the technology. Fred can do anything but we can’t tell him what we want. There’s no obvious problem looking for a solution. No killer app.

Last month at LightFair, the lighting industry’s big US shindig held annually in New York, everyone was talking about connected lighting (what we used to call ‘smart lighting’ or ‘intelligent lighting’). But no-one was able to do very much intelligent with it.

Still it didn’t stop people trying. US manufacturer Terralux, for instance, unveiled what is believed to be the world’s first light that can both detect and deal with farts. I kid you not. The LEDSense range has an built-in gas sensor that can tell if a bathroom is left ‘stinky’, to use the company’s word. The system then turns on an extractor fan.

Hubbell made a better stab at it. It unveiled the ‘angry light’, the Cimarron CL1-ITSP, an exterior fitting designed as a deterrent to criminals. Cross an invisible line – known as a ‘geofence’ – and the light gets mad: it flashes, gives stern recorded-voice warnings and announces it’s switching on its video camera.

Sensity Systems, the original ‘spy light’ maker, was showing its military-style luminaires that bristle with sensors. The fittings can do lots of tricks beyond lighting: they can count cars and people, recognise number plates, detect pollution and ‘report on suspicious activity’.

OK, I get that security surveillance and lighting can converge. That’s logical and probably the most promising early app for smart lights.

But an idea for the mainstream application of intelligent technology remains elusive. But hey, I’m confident it will eventually emerge. Why? Because it always does. That’s the way it is with technology.

Believe it or not, telecoms engineers didn’t think anyone had a use for SMS messaging in the early days of mobile phones. Now 140 billion text messages are sent annually in the UK alone.

The killer app probably won’t be invented by lighting people, but that’s OK. Come it will.

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