LightOn

Year 2010
Interaction Design + Product Design + Programming (early developed on Adobe Flash/ActionScript 3.0 then switched to Arduino Platform)

Thesis project
Exploring new forms of communication over distance through physical objects and ambient information.

Project Overview
The initial idea for the “LightOn” project came from a scene in my memory. My family always leaves a light on for family members who come home late to make them feel that someone is waiting for them. Here, light not only illuminates the environment but also carries the warm message that someone is waiting for you. I decided to make a pair of lamps for people living apart, to create a warm experience that would make them feel they are not alone, using new media, objects (lamps), and ambient information (light).
The concept prototype is a pair of network-connected lamps and triggers located in different places. When one person turns their light on, a lamp in another site will also turn on. It provides a subtle and peripheral means of communication for people in different places.

Scenario
My wife travels all over the world for artist residencies. We live separately for several months of the year. We usually keep connected through email, Skype, and phone calls (if her residency is in the United States). It’s not always convenient for us to talk over the phone or stay in front of computer and chat at the same time. Email becomes our first choice for communicating with each other. Email is an efficient way to communicate because it can cross time and space, but it lacks the quality of warmth for both of us. The network-connected lamps offered a different and richer experience.
I have one lamp in our house and she has another one with her wherever she stays. Both lamps connect wirelessly over Internet. When the sky goes dark, I turn my lamp on and her lamp turns on simultaneously. When she sees her light come on, she knows that it’s not a joke or something scary like a ghost. She knows that it’s me turning the light on for her because the sky is dark. The light conveys the messages that I miss her and I am thinking about her. When she presses the button and turns her light off, I know she knows I am thinking about her. The lamplight connects us.

Objective
My objective for this project was to investigate interpersonal connections. How can I represent interpersonal connection through the quality of light? What kind of emotional experience can we get from light? What is the difference when the light is on and off?

Physical Form
The physical object for this project is a table lamp, named “LAMPAN” that I brought from IKEA. It is a white plastic lamp whose shape is extremely simple. The focus of this project is the quality of light, not the physical lamp itself. A white plastic simple-shape lamp can minimize the influence of physical form on the overall experience.

Process
Since I planed to keep the physical form as simple as possible, the project development process was basically a technology process – programming and building an interface. The main concept for the prototype is the ability to control the pair of lamps simultaneously over the Internet.
The functional prototype was broken into two versions: Action-Script and Arduino. The first version was programmed on Action-Script 3.0 and used Union Platform as a central web server for transmitting data. The physical interface was built on a Phidgets board, a set of “plug and play” building blocks for low cost USB sensing and control from your computer, including LEDs and buttons. Phidgets connected with the computer that ran the Action Script code through USB and two Phidgets connected to each other through the Union Platform that Action Script code talked to. This prototype functioned very well. The only downside was that it required a computer transmitting and receiving data between two Phidgets boards. This version provided a clear coding logic and built a solid foundation for the programming structure of my next version. [I will add visual diagram or the setup photos.]
The second version of my prototype was programmed with the Arduino platform. The physical interface was a controller box that contained a custom Arduino circuit board, an XBee chip, a relay, and an ON/OFF control button on top of the box. There are two power slots on the side of the box; one is for Lamps to plug in directly, and another is for the power cord to connect to a wall plug. The interface boxes send and receive data back and forth via the ZigBee, an XBee chip that can send and receive data wirelessly (Wi-Fi or radio). This version is the final functional prototype of the “LightOn” project.

Conclusion
Light is a beautiful metaphor for the quality of interpersonal connections. People separated by distance connect with each other when the light is on. Light in our culture makes people feel safe and warm. The connection between people stands for the same thing. When you feel an emotional connection (virtually or physically) with a loved one, you feel safe and warm. You feel her heart. You feel she is close even through you know she is not physically next to you. Using light as a metaphor for interpersonal connection enriches this experience because the light transforms the virtual connection to something physical that you can see and even touch. The light here not only conveys messages (I miss you or I am thinking about you) or care from a loved one, but also stands for a loved one’s physical presence. The lamp becomes an interface to represent your loved one and the light becomes the carrier of these messages.
It was amazing to see people fall in love with this project when they tested the prototype. They were impressed to physically see the connection with a loved one across distance. They felt warm when they thought of the light as a message, such as I love you, and lived in the light just like being hugged by their loved one. They said the experience was elegant, warm, and poetic. And the interface is so simple that the only action is pressing a button – the light will take care of the rest.
A future variation for the “LightOn” project is to add color to the light. By adding some colors, light can convey more specific messages. Motion and sound are also possibilities for future projects. I believe they can enrich the quality of interpersonal connection and add another dimension to interpersonal communication.

LightOn Concept Video

A pair networked lamps connect people (a couple for instance) separate by distance. One in Boson, one in Taipei, Taiwan (12 hours different in time zone). Husband turns on the lamp in the morning in Boston to light on the night in Taipei. Light is on and welcomes wife home. Warm her heart and she know there is a person thinking about her. She turns off the light and the other lamp also light off. Husband knows she is home. There are more interaction and connection can happen with the lamps…

LightOn Prototype Video

The is the prototype showing you how the lamp works. The pair of lamps are connected wireless and controlled by a button.