Do you recall the opening scene of the 2017 Superbowl when flying drones circled like stars over Lady Gaga’s head? If you missed the beginning go online and check out the video. Bill Mitchell and I termed these things “liberated pixels” back in 2008 at the MIT Media Lab. The concept is simple: imagine any point of light – illuminated or self-illuminating – can be rearranged, reorganized or redesigned to change how a space feels. When we were describing this idea drones were a far cry from being mainstream technologies and now we’re arrived in that very future.
Liberated pixels call attention to the fact that light and illumination are at the core of how we perceive environments. Not only do they provide information (for example in the form of displays), but they also shape the spatial characteristics of a space. If it’s not lit it’s like it’s not there. These effects are of course even more pronounced at night. The phenomenon has a profound effect on how we perceive cities and goes far beyond the aesthetic experience of a setting because it impacts how you perceive other people whom you might encounter.
With the rapid rise of LED digital lighting sources – low-energy, miniaturized devices – the potential for how light can be reconfigured has increased. This presents opportunities and challenges. Just because anything CAN glow doesn’t mean it SHOULD. This is a great time to revisit how informational hierarchies are structured in any environment and even more so in the city. Thanks to their digital nature these lights sources unlike past ones are much easier to integrate and adapt over time.
Now couple those digital light sources with other disruptive technologies such as ubiquitous computing or IoT. These additional systems provide inputs that could drive the changes over time in lighting. Much like lighting designers in theater choreograph light throughout the action cities might have their own lighting script. I think of a continuum along which these systems can be structured: ambient – dynamic – responsive – interactive. In all cases, it requires designers to add the dimension of time quite consciously to their proposal for a space.
It’s timely and exciting to be part of the Edison Awards committee as these changes in light and lighting are taking root. There are so many opportunities for innovation and exploration. In fact, there is a need for many, interdisciplinary teams to think about the importance of light for life. I’m honored and excited to do what I can to nudge us towards finding some of those most promising futures.
Susanne Seitinger, PhD coined the term “liberated pixels” (which was also the title of her dissertation) back in 2010. At Philips Lighting, Susanne leads the strategy on how connected LED lighting creates safe, inviting and responsive urban environments. Her interdisciplinary background spans architecture, urban planning and human-computer interaction. She holds a PhD and MCP from MIT and a BA from Princeton University.