modeling advanced lighting controls

A critical part of the process of design is creating quick models to study possible scenarios.  Architects do this routinely, ranging from quick-and-dirty chipboard or foamboard study models up to elaborately detailed presentation models.  And of course, the virtual world is essentially one big model, especially powerful with information-rich modeling concepts like BIM.

Lighting control systems are rich in possibility, but fiendishly difficult to design, especially when designers are trying to create genuinely new concepts.  As lighting systems become more intelligent and networked, control interfaces become more fluid, and sensing systems drop in price, the possibilities for innovation in control methodologies becomes apparent.  However, what can a lighting designer or architect do to “play” with their ideas?  How do you “sketch” or “model” a design concept for things like dynamic interactivity, novel cause-and-effect scenarios, or subtle uses of positional awareness to influence a lighting scene?

Let’s look at both virtual and physical concepts for more intuitive modeling solutions for lighting control systems:

Tangible Objects

Humans are tangible critters.  Holding objects in your hands often help to understand complex issues.  That is why even a crude architectural model proves immensely helpful.

My thinking has been influenced by the work of the Tangible Bits group at MIT’s Media Lab, led by Professor Hiroshi Ishii.  Their Sensetable project from 2002 is a great interface example, and for the most part, could be easily replicated using the common touch screen interfaces of today.


Smart Blocks

I’ve long been fascinated by the potential for intelligent blocks to stimulate creative thought.  The Siftables project by Dave Merrill at MIT’s Media Lab offers a great example of “smart blocks”:


Of course, if I’m talking about blocks, how could I not include Lego???  Lego’s Mindstorm system has been a wildly successful platform for teaching kids of all ages basic and advanced concepts in robotics.

Should Lutron be replaced by Lego?  Maybe…especially with that color sensor option Lego offers…and the fact that the Mindstorm system is actually built in conjunction with a very sophisticated piece of software called LabVIEW from National Instruments, a development platform for laboratory- and production-grade measurement, analysis and action control.

The Maker Movement

The whole Arduino world is another reference for what a design future may look like for lighting controls:  Powerful, generic hardware that can be easily “hacked” into novel systems by the growing cohort of designers-who-know-some-programming.  These systems can be used in combination with the large world of sensors to let designers “play” with real hardware in a small scale.  And these systems could even be used in real projects, although there are issues with putting “hacked together” systems into permanent architectural projects.

Grasshopper + Firefly

And to get really crazy, check out Firefly:

“Firefly is a new set of software tools dedicated to bridging the gap between digital and physical worlds.
It allows near real-time data flow between Grasshopper (a parametric modeling plug-in for Rhino) and
the Arduino micro-controller. It will also read/write data to/from internet feeds, remote sensors and
more. What makes Firefly unique is its capacity to turn a traditionally static digital architecture model
into a “live” interface that is in constant communication with the complex dynamics of the physical
world. Sensors and actuators embedded in architectural space (models, environments and more) can
be modulated, controlled and prototyped using the Firefly / Grasshopper interface.”

So what the heck does someone with actually do with this system?  Firefly’s authors included some ideas:

“If architects designed a building like a body, it would have a system of bones and muscles and
tendons and a brain that knows how to respond. If a building could change its posture, tighten its
muscles and brace itself against the wind, its structural mass could literally be cut in half.”
-Guy Nordenson, Princeton University / Nordenson and Associates

“We foresee the possibility that most (if not all) architectural space will become responsive and
be animated through intelligent kinetic capacities. Each space will have a series of sensors which
allow the occupational patterns within the space to be registered and fed back into the intelligent
responsive structures. This can operate on many scales and levels. I think what emerges is a new era
within architecture, or between architecture and some other disciplines …”
-Patrick Schumacher (from an interview conducted by Alessandra Belia on 10 Feb 2004)

“First we build the tools, and then they build us.”
-Marshall McLuhan

How will architects and lighting designers even begin to grasp the potential of such amazing technological possibilities?  Right now, the folks experimenting with these nascent technologies often host multi-day, participatory workshops to share their techniques.  Check out LiftArchitects and StudioMode for these kinds of events.  Below is a picture captured from StudioMode’s Flickr stream…designers sitting in front of laptops, connected to Arduino boards and electronic do-it-yourself kits:  Does this represent a modern design process for innovative lighting control systems?

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