What about the components that we put in front of these light sources and modules? In the early years of the LED revolution, optical design seemed to be somewhat forgotten as manufacturers struggled with issues of output, form factors, and thermal design. In recent years, however, optics have been back big time, with lenses, reflectors and hybrid optics emerging that provide the diversity of light distributions that designers want, in varying sizes and shapes. It is a fair bet that optic design for LED sources will continue to generate innovative new products, which in turn allow luminaire designers to look at different form factors for lights, and potentially even new types of light that haven’t quite existed before. The use of high-quality 3D printing means that custom optics are a realistic commercial offer, even in small quantities. Variable optics, using technologies such as LCD diffusion and the “liquid lens” concept pioneered in entertainment lighting may offer interesting possibilities in some applications. Optics continue to be among the areas of lighting technology that show great innovation.
DALI Type 8 is not the only interesting thing going on in lighting control. Alongside optics in front of the source, controls behind the source are genuinely worth watching at the moment. After decades of lighting control being somewhat arcane and the controls supply model being based on the notion that clients would pay out £500 for an engineer to turn up just to change some scene levels or scheduling, this part of the lighting business is also undergoing a revolution.
Clients and contractors accept that large lighting control systems require specialist commissioning. So do the lifts, the fire alarms, the HVAC, etc, etc, etc. However, it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable for small lighting systems to require such a level of support and for the owners of small and even larger systems to be unable to make any changes to their lighting without a specialist. In this age, when everyone has a fairly sophisticated computer in their pocket and full command of its use, it somehow feels rather backward that lighting control systems can’t present a user-friendly interface for commissioning and management.
Because the commissioning and programming of architectural lighting control systems has been a specialist task, and generally an “in-house” job by the controls manufacturers and their agents, the software tools have generally been relatively rudimentary: they’re made by system engineers for system engineers. This has had two outcomes. Firstly, the controls are hard to use for anyone who isn’t a control systems geek, as they were designed by and for control system geeks. Secondly, they often don’t take into account what lighting designers actually want to achieve, as they have been built around system architecture, rather than considering the way people actually want to control lighting. Now that the commercial pressure is to make lighting control accessible to facilities managers and even to end users, it’s time for the software to join the 2020’s. It must be thought out from the user backwards, not from the hardware forwards. The low-level technology should be concealed… and the actual behaviour of the lights over time should be the user’s sole concern.
Some (but not all!) of the lighting controls industry are finally addressing this. The more “smart-like” systems with minimal human input are now the holy grail, and they are imminent. They will be manageable with much more intuitive interfaces, drawing on the visual UX vocabulary of the smartphone apps that we all use every day. If I can use my smartphone banking app, find what I want on Netflix, buy stuff on Amazon, sell stuff on Ebay, and find a one-night-stand on Tinder, why can’t I set up, control and adjust the setup of my lights? What goes on behind the user interface in any of those examples is far more complicated than anything required in lighting control, yet they can deliver a consumer-friendly interface, while the lighting control industry still struggles.