Lighting at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Credit: Darren Soh

+ Embedding sensors in light fittings could help buildings learn and adapt to users’ behaviours.

Imagine if your lights could talk to you and to each other. 

Because lights are everywhere in the built environment, this means you could use them to distribute sensors and communication devices inside buildings and around the city. And because LEDs already need electronics to function, it’s relatively easy to add sensors for things like temperature, air quality, noise or vibration to lights.

The ubiquity of smart devices means you can then interact with these sensors on your phone. For example, you could be presented with a personalised set of lighting controls on your phone according to the room you were in or the activity you were doing.

We recently put this sort of thinking into action in Arup’s London exhibition space. We set up the spotlights to act like Physical Web beacons, broadcasting internet links. The lights tweeted their own status updates, reporting on things like the current temperature of the LEDs and how long they’d been switched on for. Through the Physical Web link the spotlights offered to visitors an immediate way to interact with them using a web application. We created an internet of light. 

This internet of light is enabled by advances in lighting technology and the emergence of the internet of things. This new paradigm of connectivity embraces an open approach where systems can talk to each other using the technologies and protocols of the internet.

Using this approach, a commercial building could record much more detailed information about how it’s being used. The ultimate benefit of this would be enabling learning behaviours – much as smart thermostats are doing in homes, learning your routine and when you want the heating on.

It would also enable buildings to adapt to the individual and changing needs of users. An internet of light could give people personal control over their immediate environment in a way that just hasn’t been possible so far in modern open-plan office environments. The result is a space that is more adaptive and sensitive to the activities of users.

I believe smart lighting used in this way can act as a gateway between people and buildings, helping the buildings learn and respond to the ways people behave. You could even do this sort of thing on a city scale, fitting sensors to street lighting to create whole urban areas that give people a more personalised and contextual experience of their environment.