Lighting controls can no longer be 'set and forget' with IoT advances (MAGAZINE)

Oct. 17, 2017
The days of convoluted programming for lighting scenes have ended. With the advent of IoT, lighting designers must embrace flexible wireless lighting schemes with intuitive interfaces and controls, advises Beatrice Witzgall.

The days of convoluted programming for lighting scenes have ended. With the advent of IoT, lighting designers must embrace flexible wireless lighting schemes with intuitive interfaces and controls, advises BEATRICE WITZGALL.

As far back as I can remember, lighting controls were always the responsibility of IT experts. Lighting designers and end users were dependent on their skills to program our lighting vision.

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Any change to a lighting scene or a setting required the secure password and the inevitable and expensive onsite visit by a tech-IT integrator. For all users and designers, the hours of the final light setting were precious and we often found ourselves having a long wait. Once they arrived, they'd settle into their IT closets with their laptops, clicking on keys and making changes for us, sometimes even with a walkie-talkie as the control logic wasn't inside the space where you programmed. Each change of a setting required deciphering control zones, symbols, and minutes in the laptop to identify the corresponding setting. From an end user's or designer's standpoint, lighting scene setting has been a challenging and arduous process. It is neither intuitive nor easily accessible. No one ever wanted to repeat this complicated and pricy process. The goal became to set it once and then forget about it.

Now, this complex process is a thing of the past. You can forget those old DOS PC terminals that were only understood by programmers. With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and controls, anyone can get an intuitive GUI (graphical user interface) just like you'd find on an iPhone or any Apple product. Steve Jobs and Apple's intuitive GUIs left their mark, rendering programmers a thing of the past and empowering users to take control (Fig. 1). Why is lighting still stuck in a multiple-decade-old technology?

FIG. 1. Lighting scene options are opened up to the end user with a familiar graphical user interface (GUI). (Photo credit: LumiFi.)

Is it due to the established distribution and sales structures of a handful of companies that keep a firm grip on the market? Is it because the lighting industry still thinks users are not ready to embrace all the possibilities that come with IoT-enabled lighting controls? We live in a society where all consumers have come to expect the best and most technologically- advanced options to simplify their lives. Are clients not asking for it, or do we ignore their requests, since we don't know of better alternatives? With that in mind, there are many new possibilities and features available for lighting control that we'd never thought about. Why do we still accept a static light-scene button in a world of personalization and flexibility as the Holy Grail of controls?

These days there is a lot of talk about wireless systems and the IoT. So, it begs the question: What are IoT-based lighting controls? The power and the possibilities are in wireless controls. Wireless control means when the LED, its driver, and communication chip are integrated into one unit and the intelligence and controls are software-based.

Nowadays, many companies pitch a wireless solution, but in fact most are hybrid solutions where the backbone is still wired and they offer a mobile app as an extension of their system. Some others promote wireless proprietary hardware with a mobile app. The hardware is not integrated with the actual lighting fixture; it still requires additional control gear and hence is not a true integrated system. It doesn't tap into the new possibilities of an IoT-based system, which allows personalization, flexibility, and dynamic lighting capabilities.

An integrated system means that the hardware manufacturer adds a wireless chip with firmware (the software that runs the wireless chip) onto its LED or driver. No additional control gear is needed other than the software that replaces the legacy lighting control system. It simplifies the whole setup and technology, offers an open platform approach, and reduces not only hardware requirements but also infrastructure and labor efforts.

Let's be honest: Significant progress cannot be made based on legacy technology. Can you imagine a "selfie culture" with the lengthy chemical processing of traditional film? Or can you imagine not being able to take a phone call in another country while you are running errands, because your landline phone still had you chained to one physical location with its cable like a dog leash?

Why is it so hard for lighting technology providers to embrace that lighting controls have now changed? Hardware gets replaced by software everywhere. Why hold on to your old closet full of hardware when the dimmer, wireless communication chip, and software integrated together can all replace that and make the hardware obsolete?

FIG. 2. An integrated command system that is compatible with various smart lighting products and communications protocols will provides users with intuitive lighting controls. (Image credit: LumiFi.)

Is the lack of understanding a result of being unaware of alternative options, or is there inherent mistrust in innovation that causes us to still hang onto the conventional?

Lighting has so much more potential than as a one-time programmed scene switch at the door that we set once and forget. Lighting should be dynamic and transformative not only for space but also for the humans within. Why don't we try to engage with lighting in new forms and ways?

Let's stop ignoring controls and instead enhance them with an interface that we can easily engage with. Let's start to design lighting with the human in mind: transformative, fun, and interactive. Let's connect people with lighting and create more meaningful experiences.

The power of true integrated lighting controls is in a future where software replaces closets full of hardware, and where the software can evolve into being flexible and intelligent and can be easily updated over the air. We are no longer in a time where we need to send an expensive expert installer to modify a light setting on a piece of hardware; it's a time where we just send a software update to add new functions and features. Tesla reinvented the automotive industry with software-driven vehicles; why is the lighting industry still hesitant to follow where every other industry has already gone?

Embrace new possibilities and technology and don't hide behind legacy structures just because that's all you know.

The question is, how do we switch and find these new technologies? It may be just too convenient to call up our established dealer to have him do what he always has done. Isn't it our responsibility as the lighting community to seriously consider new systems and specify them into a project? Progress and innovation can only be done with knowledge and an open mind to try something different.

Now, we will be able to set and reset, modify, and personalize as many times as we want with ease and convenience. We can take control of our lighting and put a customized experience into the plan as a priority.