Business

Does your home need a thinking lightbulb?

Pillar lights

Unless you're a movie director, an interior designer or a maintenance worker you probably don't pay much attention to light bulbs at work.

Despite their power to change moods, create drama, and direct gaze, most of us barely notice light fixtures until we are swinging back on our chairs preparing for a power nap.

Electric light has been around for so long and is so common that in most places we completely take it for granted, except when it's noticeably dim or much too bright.

And despite several historical technological advances, it's a fair bet that the only big light-related headline from the past few decades that most people would be able to quote is the changeover to LEDs.

But that may soon change.

Smarten up

Light fixtures are being redesigned with some amazing new attributes.

At this year's Lightfair in New York, the emphasis was on intelligence. Bulbs and sockets are no longer dumb devices. They now contain sensors, give off signals, communicate digitally and interact with the environment.

Take your average supermarket.

Phillips Lighting demonstrated how a front-facing camera app on a customer's smart device can pick up a unique code sent by each light from the ceiling.

This translates to a map on the screen, which allows item after item to be retrieved quickly, using the most efficient route.

No more vague directions to "somewhere at the back of the shop near the canned goods" from a disinterested teenager dreaming of clocking off. Along the way people can allow themselves to be guided to special offers and sales.

It's different technology from GPS, because it works well indoors, is accurate to within centimetres and will only work for customers who opt in.

Phillips Lighting chief executive Eric Rondolat says the potential is enormous.

"We already have a pilot site for a museum. Can you imagine being in front of your favourite painting? You don't have to punch a number into the audio guide anymore," he says.

"You just hold your phone under the overhead light and an app will send you videos, articles or information about the artwork."

Image caption With smart supermarket lights - getting lost in the aisles could be a thing of the past

Switching off

Smart phones and tablets are beginning to replace the ordinary on/off switch that used to be such an important part of any lighting setup.

Glow is now completely controllable from hand-held devices, even on large scale structures.

The new Tappan Zee bridge, currently being built a few miles north of Manhattan, will have about 3,200 lights that can be manipulated remotely from anywhere in the world.

Winning team colours from the Superbowl or World Series can blanket the bridge in seconds. And no matter what the weather or time, the lights will be able to automatically adjust to provide optimal conditions.

Any broken bulbs will be discovered in seconds, thanks to the inclusion of a digital self-reporting feature, that has already been tested thoroughly on the street lights in Los Angeles.

"Our CityTouch application is a huge energy saver and those types of scenarios are crazy when you think back even 10 years ago," adds Mr Rondolat.

Image copyright Tappan Zee Constructors
Image caption Tappan Zee bridge's lights can be changed remotely

Office space

In an office environment a phone can now auto-trigger or change the lighting conditions around an individual's desk using wifi or Bluetooth. And if that person moves to another work station, the exact same customised lighting setup can be instantly replicated.

Traditional corporate lighting has been confined mostly to ceilings, but you'll start seeing more and more huge surface areas, including walls and panels in every direction, becoming light sources.

The OneSpace design involves covering an entire area with a mesh of LEDs and fabric that effectively hides the lighting until it is on. Then it provides an even glow to the entire space.

Floors are probably the last place you'd expect to find lighting, but luminous carpets capable of customisable signage already exist, and will start being rolled out this year to anywhere where directions on the ground make sense - airports, convention centres or offices.

The carpet is specially made so that the LEDs underneath shine through the fibres when lit, but otherwise it just looks like an everyday walking surface.

Image caption Luminous carpets could be coming to your office sooner than you think

Energy efficiency is usually the first consideration of any new corporate lighting project.

Years ago, motion detectors and timers were enthusiastically embraced as a way of turning off office lights at every opportunity. But, according to Damon Bosetti from Digital Lumens, the concept has been less than successful.

"Motion sensors were very expensive and very coarsely applied," he says.

"You might have had one motion detector or switch that was feeding 15 or 20 lights, so when the timer switch expired, the whole bank of lights would go off. So the set point would be very long - maybe 30 minutes or an hour."

In other words workers would deliberately try to stop the lights from going off for as long as possible in case they were left in semi-darkness, whilst sitting almost motionless at their computers - not much efficiency going on there.

But over the past couple of years component prices have continued to drop, allowing every fixture to have its own sensor. Each bulb can be timed and dimmed independently allowing for much bigger cost savings.

"LEDs themselves are far more controllable than older incandescent or fluorescent light sources and their lifetime and performance does not degrade when you do very rapid or very aggressive controls on them," says Mr Bosetti.

Image caption Motion sensors used to be very expensive - not any more

Growing up

Due to the high level of LED control there is a lot of research being done in niche lighting applications. Growing is a good example.

Farmers and florists typically use one of two different light sources to grow plants. But according to John McCarty of Lux Dynamics, whilst those solutions do work, about 80% of the light energy is not used by the plants.

McCarty spent a year huddled with growers and scientists to determine the exact wavelengths of light and the amounts that optimized the growth of different plants.

Image caption There is a lot of research being done in niche lighting applications
Image caption Farmers and florists typically use one of two different light sources to grow plants

"A plant is looking at wavelength changes through its season and knows when to go into flowering," he says.

"For example in Holland they are able to transport tulips in a van which is lit with a certain wavelength of light, and so they don't bloom until they get to the front store."

One possible application being looked at is the idea of installing herb cabinets in restaurant kitchens that provide a constant supply of perfect leaves for cooking.

Of course what many people want to know is when light fixtures be completely portable and totally wireless?

It could be fun to rip light squares off the walls and place them randomly nearby.

Unfortunately that is not likely to catch on in the corporate world as wireless solutions are currently nowhere near as efficient as wired solutions.

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