Lighting and the Internet of Things

Philips is experimenting with using connected lights to for everything from keeping us abreast of important messages to making video games more interactive and impactful on our senses

Philips is experimenting with using connected lights to for everything from keeping us abreast of important messages to making video games more interactive and impactful on our senses

When was the last time you thought about your lights? Whether you are outside or in, you will probably see 4, 5 or more sources of artificial light within view. There is an estimated 50 billion individual light points in the world today – seven or so per person; of all technology, the light bulb is arguably the most ubiquitous.

It is perhaps because of this ubiquity that light has all but disappeared from our conscious minds. We utilise it with minimal thought, though sometimes its complexities are impossible to ignore. If we were preparing a romantic dinner, for instance, we would tailor the lighting accordingly. We do this because lighting doesn’t merely reflect mood, but dictates it, something connectivity is increasingly enabling us to take advantage of.

“We’ve evolved for the last however many millions of years to expect light from the sun,” says George Yianni, head of technology at Philips Lighting Home Systems. “If there’s a bright, cool white light at midday from the sun, our brain is hardwired to be awake and alert. If there is a very warm dim light such as you get around sunset, our brain is hardwired to start winding down and relaxing.”

Yianni is a technological evangelist. In a very literal way he has seen the light, and he wants to harness this physiological sensitivity to light (among other responses) to help us to relax, to deal with jet lag, to concentrate better and much more. Due to the degree to which we take lighting for granted, however, it’s an area that poses obvious challenges to innovators:  “As a consumer, the only time you think about a light bulb inside your house is when one breaks and you have to try to find one that fits in the same socket and gives the same light output. But actually it is amazing how light can transform how a space looks, how you feel in a space.”

One of the first projects Yianni was involved in was the use of tunable white light in some German schools, giving teachers the ability to modify the lighting by changing the colour temperature, to calm students down, help them wake up, or enhance concentration (Yanni says their test scores improved significantly as a result). It was after working on a succession of such projects – including outdoor street lighting, office lighting, football stadiums, and more – that he accepted the challenge of introducing these kinds of effects and improvements into the home in the form of Philips Hue connected lighting for the home. “I wanted to make this kind of lighting accessible, understandable and impactful for normal people. I wanted people to think about lighting more than just when it’s broken.”

Some of the results and available use cases will be familiar to anyone with an eye open to contemporary commercial IoT. Lighting that knows when you’ve come home, for example, and can ensure that you don’t step into a dark, inhospitable house after a trip or long day at work. By the same token, remotely controllable or programmable lighting that can give people added peace of mind when they’re away – by making it look like they’re not.

Familiar as this latter use case might be, it also points towards another intriguing capacity of lighting. Usually, we turn lighting on and off according to whether we need it: but a house burglar may translate this as whether we are at home or out. Far from being oblivious to lighting, lighting speaks volumes to would-be burglars.

The potential of lighting to communicate in other, less nefarious contexts is something Phillips is encouraging its customers to exploit.

“We’re enabling people to use Philips Hue lights inside their homes and by extension the homes themselves to communicate simple notifications,” says Yianni. “So, in the morning, if the Philips Hue light in your porch is blue you know it’s going to rain that day, if it’s yellow you know it’s not so you can plan whether to bring a umbrella or not. Other customers are using Philips Hue lights to notify them about important email messages. There’s a wide range of way where people are actually using connected lighting in their homes to keep them informed in a less distracting way than an alarm or a buzzer.”

Another popular use case for smarter lighting concerns home entertainment. Whether we’re watching movies or TV, playing video games, or listening to music, Philips Hue is unique in that it can greatly enhance the experience through more than 300 third-party apps. Philips Hue launched the first video game, movies and TV shows with ‘scripted’ lighting programmed by the content creators to sync with their lights delivering a more immersive experience in the home. Yianni provides some examples: “As your health is dropping down in the video game Chariot, the Philips Hue lights turn red in your lounge. As a protagonist enters a dark cave in a movie, the Philips Hue lights will dim down.”

“For the last hundred years, people have been used to expecting nothing more on and off from a light bulb,” says Yianni. “We are changing that.”

In September Yianni will be appearing at Internet of Things World Europe in Berlin, where he’ll be using lighting to really illuminate the potential for IoT to revolutionise some of the most fundamental and taken-for-granted details of our day-to-day lives, as well as the central importance of communicating this to consumers.