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MIT's adaptive lighting system could slash lighting bills


November 21, 2010

The adaptive lighting system

The adaptive lighting system

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According to a 2009 Department of Energy study, lighting accounts for 22 percent of all the electricity used in the United States. In an effort to cut this figure, many modern buildings have done away with the humble light switch in favor of automatic motion-detector switches or complicated control panels with arrays of sliders and buttons. A new system literally puts the controls back in people’s hands and its developers at MIT say it has the potential to slash lighting bills by more than half.

The experimental system consists of control devices about the size of a business card that can be placed on users’ desktops. They contain light sensors to monitor the light falling on the user’s workspace, as well as controls to adjust both the intensity and the color balance of the light. In the current test setup, the devices are used to control of LED light fixtures, which are energy efficient and can also be easily adjusted to any level of intensity.

Not only do the controllers measure the intensity of light falling on the workspace, but they can also identify how much light comes from different fixtures, while also separately measuring any ambient light coming in the windows or spilling over from neighboring work areas. This allows the overhead lights to automatically dim or switch off altogether if the sunlight from the window is sufficient to light the workspace. Then, if clouds roll in and the sunlight decreases, the lights are immediately reactivated.

The color balance of the light can also be adjusted by varying the intensity of individual LED lamps of different colors in the overhead fixtures.

Energy savings of up to 90 percent

In tests of the system so far the researchers found that it reduced the energy used for lighting by 65 to 90 percent – and that’s on top of the savings resulting from using LEDs over incandescent lights or compact fluorescents.

And as well as saving energy, the system is potentially more comfortable for the user. As research associate Matthew Aldrich explains: “It opens up the space for user controls, so you can adapt the lighting to what suits you best.”

Currently, whenever the sensor is moved, the system needs to ramp the lighting up and down so it can be recalibrated. This produces a brief but distracting short sequence of light and dark, which Aldrich is hoping to overcome by incorporating infrared (IR) LEDs in the light fixtures and IR sensors in the controllers in the future. This would allow the calibration and adjustment of light levels to be done invisibly and without unnecessary distractions. The researchers are also using cameras to measure reflected light across illuminated areas and studying ways of using gestures for lighting control.

The MIT team is also studying user reactions to ascertain whether it would be more effective to let each user control their own workspace, or to allow a single control for an area or work group and whether it is better to have the controls in fixed locations, or have portable devices that control lights as a user moves around a building.

“We want to see how users will interact with it, to see if we can really realize these energy savings,” Aldrich says.

Preliminary results of the ongoing research, which is funded by the Media Lab, were published earlier this year in the Proceedings of SPIE, in a paper co-authored by Aldrich, Media Lab Associate Professor Joseph Paradiso and visiting student Nan Zhao.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

How about a transceiver on one\'s belt. Each light control in the building would respond to their presence with light of the appropriate intensity.

Fred Conwell

Great, now Skynet will be able to turn out our lights and come to hunt us down in the darkness.

Gene Jordan

What is new here? There are dosens of such available systems that do work with existing building (and home) automation systems.

Kris Lee

Why do you want to get tedious by having this sensor card? Do you even want to get it hands-off by wearing it on top of your hat? No..

I suggest using a zoomable, tracking light sensor or simply camera and track the location of multiple users around the room and capture the light intensity and hue in the radius of each person. Job\'s done then, probably!!

Akemai Olivia

I believe IR is the only natural way to go with programming, such as the bedroom after a particular time the light comes on at say 10 percent, we manage to forget or leave behind those magic cards etc, I also raise the issue as an alternative to the LED, which I have been told (with no scientific evidence) the \'Cold Cathode\' to be brighter and use less energy. I would also appreciate specifications on setting up a 12 volt dc LED/Cold cathode for the home and primarily where to purchase the lamps competitively here in Australia. Like I will not spend thousands to save hundreds, however, seeing adequately with such technology. At the end of the day (No pun intended) I would like to disengage the lights from the meter box - legally of course


Excellent example of ENERGY CONSERVATION. MIT researchers are known for their INNOVATIVE SPIRIT. Congratulations.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Anumakonda Jagadeesh
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