Making the switch7 min read

During the first few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency in early 2017, it was reported that the president and his aides had a little trouble operating the light switches in the White House.

At the end of meetings in the cabinet room, visitors would walk around, testing doors until eventually finding an exit. While some may allude to the situation as a metaphor for the Trump presidency, those in the lighting business might have questioned the need for smart lighting in the White House.

It is almost second nature for us to look for a light switch when entering a dark room. It is how most of us have ever known to turn a light on and off. It is the most ordinary of things. Even in complete darkness in an unfamiliar environment, we know the height a light switch is generally fixed at and the inherent shape and contours of its form. The quintessential rectangular form with a centred rocker is so ubiquitous in society that we don’t give it a second thought.

With the advent of smartphones and now voice assistants, the user interface with which we control lighting is moving from the tactile to touch and now to voice. Surrounding all this technological advancement is a more philosophical question around what the ideal way of controlling our lighting should be, and the answer isn’t so black and white. For most of our lives, we would simply walk into a room and near the door, there would be a switch on the wall. Is it more or less convenient to take your phone out of your pocket, load up an app and turn on the lights? Arguably, there is more granular control in the latter, but perhaps it is also less accessible.

It is 1878 in Northumberland, a county in North East England. Industrialist, inventor and philanthropist, Sir William Armstrong, has just installed a small hydro electric plant on his property for the purpose of generating electric light in a picture gallery. Cragside, as it was called, was one of the first houses in the world to be lit with electric light. The first light bulb to be manufactured in large numbers became known as the Cragside type lamp, which was established in a nearby light bulb factory by Joseph Swan.

During the same period of time, an American inventor by the name of Thomas Edison was beginning to research the idea of an incandescent lamp and filed his first patent application in 1878. While Edison is commonly identified as the inventor of the light bulb, there were actually over 20 recorded attempts at the development of a light bulb before both Swan and Edison. Like a lot of other inventions that have impacted modern society, they can actually be attributed to many different people over an extended period of time.

Swan and Edison would eventually team up to form The Edison & Swan United Electric Light company in 1883. Only a year after the formation of their company, an electrical engineer by the name of John Henry Holmes developed the first light switch with quick-break technology. While earlier switch designs took an eternity to switch on and off and had issues with arcing, Holmes’ design featured a snap on/snap off element, which equated to contacts that would snap together or spring apart at a rapid rate when the switch was toggled. In principle, this same design is still the basis for billions of light switches around the world.

The instantaneity of a physical light switch was almost magical at first. It was the first time in history, we could change the visual appearance of our physical environment at a whim, and it was advertised as such. Over the next one hundred years, the concept of the light switch went from the magical to the mundane as adoption became universal. What started as the most cutting-edge of technology became routine, almost subconscious.

The design of the humble light switch has evolved over time, with countless variations in size, shape and function. The physical movement to signify “on” and “off” states can vary from a rocker being toggled up and down to a button being pushed in and out.

In principle, the notion of physical controls mounted to a wall remains the same. In the same way children born today will grow up with an inherent understanding of the way touch screen devices operate, we understood the concept of a light switch from the time we could walk and talk. Times are changing though, and the battle for lighting control supremacy is heating up.

The next chapter in the story of the interface with which we interact with light is touch screens. With over 2.5 billion smartphone users worldwide, each spending over two hours a day on these devices, it makes sense that the next natural progression is towards mobile applications. Whenever a function is moved from a physical to a digital interface, there needs to be a tangible benefit. In this case, the digital interface can offer significantly more granular control of lighting. Depending on the lighting control solution (Bluetooth, WiFi, Zigbee), there’s the ability to achieve standard functions such as dimming, more advanced controls to create scenes, or gradual colour temperature shifts to match circadian rhythms.

We have become increasingly familiar with controlling many aspects of our lives through the lens of our smartphones. Whether it is as simple as managing our weekly shopping list or the temperature of our homes, if you can think of it, there is probably an application that exists to manage or control it.

With this evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), comes a dilemma that stands at the antithesis of what the applications aim to do. Each of these applications aims to offer more convenience than traditional means of control, but with each of these devices running its own race with its own independent software, early adopters are becoming lost in a landslide of different protocols and apps.

As the market matures, smartphone users are becoming more and more selective about the types of apps they install on their devices. The question is then posed around whether the additional control from an app to control your lighting is that much more beneficial or convenient than traditional wall mounted interfaces for the majority of use-cases. This is where the argument is made for voice control.

It wasn’t long ago that voice activated lighting conjured pictures of the Jetsons and robots. In recent years however, the rise of Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa have gained considerable traction. From music to lighting, all types of devices are being developed in consideration of control via voice. Where smartphone apps suffered the inconvenience of still being attached to a device, voice controlled devices can be activated from anywhere within the vicinity of a hub. The accessibility and ease of use is much improved. Turning on your lighting after returning home with copious amounts of groceries in both hands has never been easier.

Voice is perhaps the next frontier in how we interact with technology. Voice controlled devices are flooding the market and will only improve as the technology improves. However, despite the automation and convenience of voice control – it does still rely on user input. There is a growing discussion around the idea of the “Invisible UI”; a belief that proposes no user interface is the best user interface. An invisible UI is essentially an interaction that requires no user interface because of how intuitive it is. It could be that Amazon understands your weekly usage of milk and reorders on your behalf without the need for you to place the order.

In the context of lighting, an invisible UI could create lighting systems that understand our preferences and behaviour. This method would be a truly transformative way to think about lighting and the first real leap from the idea of lighting requiring input to lighting that is anticipatory. Over time, your lighting system might learn all your preferences – from which lights you turn on to retrieve a glass of milk in the middle of the night, to the dimming settings you choose to wind down to every night.

There are a raft of concerns that arise from all these new technologies, such as privacy breaches and data collection, but there is no doubt they offer greater control and convenience that seemed impossible only a few decades ago. The way we interact with lighting on a day-to-day basis is undergoing more change in the last ten years than the fifty years before combined. Where it is heading is still unclear but the tug of war will hinge on convenience, control and the user interface.



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