Let There Be (Intelligent) Light Featured

Would you like to sleep better? Try changing the light bulb..

by Henry Neuteboom 17 September 2017


Most of us walk into a room and switch the light on, and you get exactly the same light at whatever time. In five years’ time, children are going to expect that when you walk into a room, the lights come on automatically, with a colour that varies according to the time of day. Further in the future, lighting will perhaps react to your emotions, matching colour and intensity to your feelings and your physiological needs.

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The recent developments in smart biological lighting have been made possible by means of LED technology that can vary the colour of light in addition to intensity, and by wireless sensors and voice control as has already been seen in Amazon Echo and the Google Home speaker. This area of design is still young, but it has been accelerating as scientists have started to research the effects of light and colour on human physiology. It’s ironic that in the morning we choose our coffee from a huge range of colour-coded capsules, while more attention to the hue of ambient light could wake us up more efficiently.

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The human body has natural in-built cycles that are approximately 24 hours in length, but that are fine-tuned by the alternation of daylight and night. The retina includes special receptors that are not image-forming, and whose purpose is solely to detect the light-dark cycle and send signals to the hypothalamus that controls the body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm. Experiments show that changes in light intensity and colour are detected and affect the body’s physiology. For example, light with a shorter wavelength, towards the blue end of the spectrum, increases alertness and speeds up reaction times. Longer-wavelength light, with the yellow-orange-red colours typical of sunset, has the opposite effect and so is conducive to sleep.

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So it’s easy to imagine the ideal situation in a domestic interior, with lighting that gently assists you in waking up, and progressively moves to the bright, blue-rich daylight that helps you deal with your activities during the day. In the evening, a gradual diminution of intensity with a corresponding change in colour helps you wind down. Children could choose the ideal light for studying. In systems such as Hue by Philips and Lightify by Osram, each individual lamp can be controlled from a smartphone or tablet, or by voice (this means that you have to give each lamp a name). These systems are relatively easy to install, requiring just a wi-fi router and the new LED bulbs.

In short, connected lighting looks like becoming the first step towards the much-heralded ‘internet of things.’ To many of us, talking to a lamp may seem a bit crazy, but it seems to be the way the world is going.

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