XXV.5 September-October 2018
Page: 26
Digital Citation

The long shadow of connected lighting

Jonathan Bean

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For most people, devices such as Amazon's Echo speaker or Google's Nest thermostat come to mind when they think of the Internet of Things. Light fixtures? Not so much. But big changes are coming to the world of lighting, driven by our seemingly unquenchable need to leave no thing unconnected.

Sophisticated control systems for lighting make good sense. Controls can sense ambient lighting conditions and dynamically adjust, which can save energy—provided the added load from the control sensors and algorithms do not exceed the potential savings. In settings such as large office buildings or retail stores, lights can be operated only when they are needed; perhaps you've had the slightly unsettling experience of turning into a deserted freezer aisle at a grocery store just in time to see the lights blink on, as though a ghost were walking down the aisle before you. Putting aside the creepy (and sometimes annoying) factor of lights going on and off by themselves, lighting uses the bulk of power in large buildings, so controlling their use is a worthwhile goal for the planet. Light impacts our health, as well. Perhaps you use the Night Shift mode on your iPhone or a utility such as f.lux to change the color balance of your computer screen. LED bulbs with controls can do the same thing in space, turning light bluer in the morning and yellower in the evening, a shift that has been shown to promote health and wellness. Too much blue light, especially at night, seems to cause health problems, which led the American Medical Association to issue a very controversial warning in 2016 that "brighter residential nighttime lighting is associated with reduced sleep times, dissatisfaction with sleep quality, excessive sleepiness, impaired daytime functioning, and obesity" [1].

So, just when we thought that sugar was the real villain, it turns out that LED lights are making us fat! But beyond the hotly debated impacts on the individual, the very idea of what lighting is and can do is shifting. This change is mainly the consequence of three factors: the cost of electrical wire, requirements in building codes, and the significantly lower power draw of LED light fixtures. Wiring in most buildings is copper, and even a modest house is likely to have miles of it. The worldwide building boom continues to drive up the cost of copper, a destructive metal to produce because it requires messy and polluting mines. Building codes, which were established in part to protect the health and safety of building users, rightfully treat highvoltage electrical wire as the dangerous beast it is, requiring those heavy copper wires to be safely run deep in building cavities, protected by metal or plastic armor, and, in many states, installed by a licensed electrician who will have spent twice the time apprenticing as the licensed architect who designed the building. The result is that wiring is expensive, both in terms of labor and materials. Until recently, this was a non-negotiable cost: Buildings simply must have light.

But the diffusion of inexpensive LED lighting was a game changer. LED lighting uses relatively little electricity, even compared with efficient fluorescent bulbs. LED lighting also runs on direct current, and this is where things start to get interesting. Pick up a new LED light fixture for your house at the hardware store and you'll notice a bulky component integrated into the base. It's a power supply that converts the alternating current coursing from the power plant to the wires in your house into the type of direct current that the diodes need to function. This approach is good enough for retrofit situations, but it doesn't make sense for new commercial construction. Instead of having tens or hundreds of power supplies—which, in addition to being inherently inefficient also produce waste heat that can be problematic—systems can have a centralized power supply that feeds the system via dedicated direct current low-voltage wiring. This wiring, since it is not carrying power that is as hazardous as alternating current, is subject to a different section of the building code, so it does not need to be protected in the same way, nor does it necessarily need to be installed or modified by an electrician.

This means that regular old Ethernet cable makes an excellent and flexible replacement for stiff copper wiring. Some types are rated to carry voltage; it's a readily available commodity product; and RJ45 connectors are much faster to connect and more reliable than connecting solid 12-gauge wire to stranded feed lines with wire nuts. The generic idea is called Power over Ethernet, and some variation of it is likely how your office phone gets its energy. Cisco's variation of the standard, called Universal Power over Ethernet, or UPOE, allows for up to 60 watts at each port. It's this tweak that's changing the way people in the lighting industry are talking about their products.

No longer are light fixtures, which are known as luminaires in industry jargon, simply light fixtures. Instead, they are part of a system. Philips explains its new partnership with Cisco this way:

These UPOE-compatible luminaires can provide highly granular information on their own status, usage, and health. They can be extended with embedded sensors for monitoring properties of the illuminated space—such as occupancy, light level. Sensors are modular and replaceable, enabling upgrades for more extensive sensing in the future.... Because it is high-bandwidth, the PoE network enables rich data collection. Every luminaire is a source of sensor, energy, usage, and maintenance data [2].


Now, if you're a sensor of any type, the ceiling is a good place to live. There's typically a clear, unobstructed view of the interior space, so it's easy to see what's going on. Thus, what looks like a better and more efficient lighting system can easily be tweaked to serve as a system for surveillance and control. If certain wavelengths of light perk us up or calm us down, what's to keep retail stores from manipulating the lighting to induce buying mania? Since we know that our circadian rhythms and health can be impacted by artificial light, what is the ethical responsibility of those who operate buildings where people work overnight? What happens when the sensors that may already be in your office chair can talk to the sensors in the luminaires overhead—or when your employer can use this data to assess your productivity? Will temperature sensors in the lights in schools single out sick kids? Or, for a truly dystopian scenario, what happens when a rogue state gains control of the lighting network in a government building? One hopes lighting-system designers in these kinds of high-stakes scenarios will be wise enough to resist the temptation to swap in cameras for the occupancy and light-level sensors, though that would take spy thrillers one step closer to reality: "Show us what's happening in the conference room, Chloe." But perhaps a more likely hack would be an IoT-enabled version of gaslighting, where subtle changes in a building's interior lighting could be used to negatively affect the moods and thoughts of those inside.

A bigger threat to those charged with growing the Internet of Things is the generalized and justified public fear of surveillance represented so well by Big Brother in George Orwell's book 1984. The feeling of violation stemming from news that an Amazon Alexa device mistakenly sent out a recording of a Portland family's dinner conversation indicates a growing sense of unease with the idea that the Internet of Things is—or could be—keeping tabs on us, leading those involved to unplug their Echo speaker [3]. We have already seen the former director of the FBI telling people it's a good idea to tape over the camera lens in their laptop [4]. What happens when people realize the entire office ceiling is covered with sensors?

The specter of surveillance should be of as much concern to those in the field of human-computer interaction as the amount of wattage we can funnel down an Ethernet cable or the sensitivity of a sensor. Every technology has a dark side—even Internet-connected lighting. Sensors and controls have their place, but perhaps we should think twice before connecting everything with an Ethernet cable to the Internet just because it's got the right kind of plug. To conclude with a brighter view, many useful functions of connected lighting, especially those related to energy conservation, don't need to be connected to the Internet to work. Perhaps there's a market out there for stuff that—by design—can't spy on us.

back to top  References

1. Keane, K. Status report: AMA blue light controversy. Architectural Lighting. Sept. 20, 2017;

2. Wright, D., Frimout, E., Suau, L., and Thakur, A. The Future of Enterprise Office Lighting: Connected Lighting and the Internet of Things;

3. Wamsley, L Amazon Echo recorded and sent couple's conversation—all without their knowledge. May 25, 2018;

4. Hern, A. Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his webcam. Should you? The Guardian. June 26, 2016;

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Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He researches domestic consumption, technology, and taste. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2018 ACM, Inc.

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