Susanne Seitinger, you went from studying urban planning to being a researcher in the Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab and now Senior Technologist at Philips Color Kinetics: how did your interest in lighting develop?
To be honest: I started working on lighting because I wanted a change from transportation networks. Under Prof. Bill Mitchell at the Media Lab we did lots of interesting work on shared mobility systems and electric vehicle design. I wanted to explore other infrastructures in the city. Lighting appealed to me because of its ability to bridge the emotional and the technical dimensions of urban experience. My colleague Franco Vairani and I developed a concept for the city of Zaragoza in Spain that was based on programmable, wireless lighting elements. I remember building a quick prototype out of a solar garden lamp – I was hooked.
How do you think lighting can improve the quality of life in cities? And conversely, how does poor lighting affect our lives?
Few people are conscious of the degree to which light affects their health, mood and sense of space. It’s only after you draw their attention to a particular lighting condition that they realize how powerful light can be. The first exercise in the class World of Night I used to teach with Anne Beamish required students to document their trip home from university in the evening. It was amazing to see how many had never noticed the links between the lighting conditions and their chosen path. Many of them realized that some of their chosen paths were noticeably better lit than alternative routes. So lighting drives our perception of safety and our implicit sense of neighborhood boundaries.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of programmable LED displays in urban environments?
Media and information displays are an inextricable part of urban environments. With the increasing affordability and availability of LED displays, we are however seeing a substantial increase in the number of dynamic displays. This increase is leading to pushback in some communities that want to prevent visual clutter or an onslaught of additional advertising. For me the most important lesson from these changes relates to our need for context-sensitive approaches to urban design that accommodate media in all its forms. We have to promote interesting ways of integrating “calm and ambient displays” as much as high-resolution and high-definition information.
As a researcher at MIT Media Lab you developed an innovative, zero-energy display system called Urban Pixels. Could you describe that project for us? What difficulties did you encounter?
There were two aspects to Urban Pixels: (1) wireless connectivity, (2) renewable energy source. My vision was for pixels to function like the breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel drop in the woods to find their way. I wanted to make pixels that anyone could temporarily overlay onto existing conditions to add a layer of programmability. Their meaning would then arise from a combination of dynamic behaviors and contextual cues. For example, if they are arranged in a line that is programmed with a gentle wave it signifies direction. If they are arranged as a grid they might scroll text. And so on.The biggest challenges were related to incorporating the renewable energy source into the pixels themselves – I explored wind, solar and water power. I realized that many of these sources would severely limit the areas Urban Pixels could be deployed. As a result I started to imagine how the renewable power source might be moved off-board and simply recharge batteries on each pixel. This idea made sense from an efficiency and cost point of view and I deployed a set of these pixels in Inverness, Scotland.
What are the advantages of Urban Pixels over common LED displays? Are there any drawbacks?
I don’t necessarily think of Urban Pixels as a display. To me it’s part of the urban fabric or architecture. Unlike the types of displays or billboards that cover up existing conditions low-resolution and free-from programmable elements dialog with the existing conditions. I think successful designs fundamentally depend on establishing this connection with a specific context. Otherwise places lose their unique identity.
Looking at it in hindsight, can you think of any aspects of that project that you would like to develop differently or further?
The biggest outstanding challenge relates to controls. When you create a system that can be programmed in different ways and allows users to interact with it how do you determine when someone is allowed to take over? These issues of one-to-many, many-to-many, etc. still require much more investigation and experimentation.
How would you say lighting technologies for urban environments are improving from an energy point of view? How do you see the future of urban lighting?
That’s a big question! Clearly, we are making enormous strides in reducing the energy consumption of urban lighting. We are also doing a much better job of directing light to those places and environments that require it. In the future, I hope that this new-found flexibility is used to enable even more creative ways of incorporating lighting design into placemaking.
Susanne Seitinger, global sub-segment manager at Philips Lighting, is responsible for leading the research and strategy around the impact of programmable LED lighting elements to create safe, inviting and responsive public spaces. Her combined background in architecture, urban planning and human-computer interaction is comprised of research and design projects like the Digital Mile in Zaragoza, Spain and Urban Pixels, wireless LED pixels for ad-hoc media façades. LightBridge, a project in honor of MIT’s 150th anniversary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used new configurations of low-resolution displays and sensor-activated urban screens to showcase the potential of responsive infrastructures in future urban lighting plans.
Seitinger received a BA from Princeton University as well as a PhD, MS and MCP from MIT. Her PhD dissertation — Liberated Pixels: Alternative Narratives for Lighting Future Cities — explored the aesthetic and interactive potentials for future lighting and display infrastructures.
Susanne Seitinger was interviewed by Eleonora Nicoletti