Smart Lighting + IoT | Usability | LpR Article | Resources | Software | Mar 22, 2017

Enhancing the LED Experience - UI & UX as Success Factors for IoT Based Lighting Controls

As LED lighting systems become part of the Internet of Things, getting the interface right is essential if all of the potential benefits are to be realized. Karl Jónsson and Christian Moormann of Tridonic explain why UI and UX are crucial for the acceptance of the “Internet of Things”, give design hints and describe what this type of user interface that accommodates scalability, simplicity and ease of handling could look like. The authors also discuss examples based on a system Tridonic pre-launched in 2016.

Over the last decade or so, LED lighting has established itself as the technology of choice, compared to more traditional light sources, in most commercial projects, as well as many industrial and residential installations. In most cases, these decisions have been made on the basis of reducing energy consumption and running costs, against strict return on investment criteria - as well as delivering better lighting.

Now there is growing acknowledgment that the characteristics of an LED lighting system also provide the ideal basis for improving connectivity between many of the systems that keep our buildings working efficiently. As the Internet of Things becomes the “Internet of Light” it is essential that we understand the difference between user interaction design and user experience design. At no point should we forget we are designing for people! It is therefore essential that all parties, from designers to end users, have a significant input to the final shape of the system.

Before discussing how this can be achieved, it’s worth reviewing the key features that are driving this transition and putting SSL systems at the heart of enhanced interaction between buildings and their occupants.

Figure 1: The rapid expansion of the Internet of Things has the potential to make our lives much simpler including Apps to control a wide range of building functions that can be easily performed on a smartphone

LED Popularity

Since LED light sources were first introduced they have built up a well-deserved reputation for providing significantly better energy efficiency than traditional light sources such as incandescent, fluorescent and high intensity discharge. This has clear benefits in terms of reduced energy costs and environmental impact.

A further benefit is that they last much longer than these traditional light sources, so that the costs and disruption associated with maintenance are greatly alleviated.

Figure 2: A single presence sensor situated discreetly in a luminaire is sufficient for detecting whether an office is occupied or not and can be controlled via a smartphone App. The data is then stored on the ‘cloud’ and forwarded to the various systems including HVAC, window blinds, security management and lighting control

Low Voltage, Low Power

Moreover, an LED lighting installation is effectively a low voltage, low power environment, compared to traditional light sources that required hundreds of volts and a significant power supply. As a result, the Ethernet cables in the building can also be used to carry the power supply for the luminaires, alongside the data required for controlling and monitoring the lighting (PoE, Power over Ethernet). PoE cabling also enables faster data transfer compared to traditional twisted pair control cables.

This delivers significant benefits to building operators, as there is no longer any need for separate power cabling to the light fittings - so that material costs and installation time are both reduced. It also makes any retrofit or future re-configuration far more straightforward, enabling the building to be optimized through “continuous commissioning” as the building’s usage evolves.

The Internet of Light

Given all the benefits of LED lighting, its potential for playing a decisive role in the Internet of Things is obvious. In 2015 around five billion smartphones, tablets, smart electricity meters, cars, factory machines and other devices were communicating via the Internet. It has been calculated that at some point during 2016 it will have risen to between 7 billion and 8 billion. Potentially, this will exceed the number of the people on the planet! This rapid expansion of the Internet of Things is a direct result of the boom in applications that add value for end users. The sheer diversity of functions that can be performed on a smartphone is augmented by enhanced, internet-based communication by domestic appliances, vehicles, electricity meters and robots in factories.

The trouble is, such a vast quantity of interconnected devices also brings increased complexity. Just look around any modern office building and you will probably see an array of different occupancy sensors, from different manufacturers, doing slightly different things and all communicating their data back to different systems. One may be controlling the lighting, another the security system with perhaps a third and fourth controlling the air conditioning and blinds respectively. Yet the Internet of Things has the potential to make our lives simpler - as well as richer. Increasing the richness of our existence is of little use if it brings the headaches associated with complex systems.

So what is needed is greater simplicity with harmonization of the various devices involved. To do that, we need a common infrastructure into which the Internet of Things can be simply “docked”. In this respect, the one thing that just about every building already has is a lighting system with an integrated power supply. In many of these light fittings there is plenty of room to introduce one or more digital sensors or microchips - after all, digital electronics is already at the heart of LED lighting. Furthermore, most luminaires are installed on ceilings or walls, the ideal positions for sensors - which can communicate using the wireless or data cabling already being used to monitor and control the lighting. This arrangement enables the simplification of data collection in the various spaces. Instead of having an array of different occupancy sensors for various functions, a single sensor can provide occupancy data to each system. The data is the same; it’s the way it is analyzed that differs.

For example, a single presence sensor integrated out of sight in a luminaire is sufficient for detecting whether an office is occupied or not. This data is then stored in the “Cloud” (i.e. on an Internet or intranet server), evaluated and forwarded to the HVAC systems, window blinds, security management system and of course to the lighting control system. This occupancy information can also be used to provide information about how various spaces (offices, meeting rooms etc.) are being used. Armed with this data, facilities managers are able to optimize the space in their buildings, potentially freeing up under-used space for sub-letting. Traditionally, such space utilization areas have involved walking around the building with a clipboard and noting which workstations are in use. Not only was this incredibly time- and resource-intensive, but by the time the data was analyzed it was also already out of date.

Nor is this functionality confined to indoors. Presence sensors in car park lights or street lights can indicate where there is a free parking space, pass this information on to a satellite navigation system and ensure that the free space is indicated by some visual means, such as a green light.

Indoor navigation will also be possible by using “beacons”, small Bluetooth transmitters, in the luminaires. With the aid of these radio transmitters anyone with an appropriate smartphone app will be able to pinpoint their location to within a few meters. This will be invaluable in helping people find their way around large buildings such as shopping centers, hospitals and airports - as well as for finding a particular product in a large store.

Unlike with previous systems the beacons would no longer have to be installed separately or set up individually because of a lack of a network, and the need to regularly replace batteries would no longer be an issue.

The Right UI for the Right UX

As noted at the beginning of this article, when implementing such systems, the needs and experience of the people using them need to be first and foremost. To that end, it’s important to be aware of the difference between interaction design and user experience design. The former - the user interface (UI) - focuses on making the interaction between people and technology user friendly. The latter - the user experience (UX) - makes sure the entire process is a pleasant experience. For instance, it may be possible to develop a product that is incredibly intuitive and user-friendly - but how does the user experience it? It if doesn’t excite or inspire, i.e. it’s boring, it will not be a compelling experience and people will not be motivated to use the product.

Thus, the UI and the UX need to work in harmony - that’s why product and interface development is ideally a team effort between engineers and designers. Moreover, any software that is going to operate within an Internet of Things (IoT) environment needs to keep pace with rapid changes in direction. To that end, developers such as ourselves, have moved away from the traditional “waterfall” method of software development to an “Agile Scrum” approach. This approach allows dynamic changes and accommodation of fast-evolving feature sets and customer inputs, thereby ensuring the software is constantly tested and challenged - in terms of functionality, UI and UX - as it develops. Thus, the software test becomes an integral part of the development process and the results can be checked against expectations, enabling re-prioritization, if necessary.

This principle applies just as much to professional, business-to-business scenarios as it does to the consumer world. Tools that facilitate the workflow of a professional need to do more than just make the task easier. Lighting designers, commissioning engineers, installers, etc. are proud of their job and their expertise. By providing the tools that help them excel at what they do (design tools, commissioning tools) those tools become an integral part of what makes their job a gratifying experience.

For instance, a traditional UX for professional software tools required considerable technical training and field expertise. Enhancing the UX and taking advantage of the latest mobile platforms makes the whole process quicker and easier, so that staff productivity increases and the commissioning process is faster with a significantly reduced risk of errors.

Interestingly, the consumer world is setting the benchmarks for UX design these days. When it comes to innovations in terms of software/ app design, VR applications, Internet of Things, online services and new business models (amongst others) the paradigm shifts are driven by consumer propositions. This is mostly due to the incredibly short innovation cycles in those markets and this is an area where professional industries need to catch up. People’s expectations of what technology can do, and how they can interact with it, are strongly influenced by the products they use in their private lives.

Figure 3: Occupancy information is vital in the event of fire evacuation and a smartphone App makes this possible. Indoor navigation is also possible by using ‘beacons’, small Bluetooth transmitters in the luminaires. Anyone with an appropriate smartphone App will be able to pinpoint their location and identify fire exits easily

In the area of lighting this is being addressed by bringing together electronics, sensor technology, software and LED luminaire control to develop future-proof hardware and software platforms. Such a toolbox comprises LED drivers, communication modules, sensors, routers, software and applications. In this way, the UX design of professional software tools is blended with the common UX principles of consumer products, making the complexity vanish for the user without hiding the capabilities and details that deliver the required functionality.

For these reasons, in developing such a system, Tridonic employed a UX/UI designer with experience in cutting-edge UXs for consumer apps - an environment where user manuals are not an option. This was combined with a prototype/emulation tools called Invision that enables collaboration and real-time testing of concepts, features and user requests with product management and user groups before work began on writing the code. Such an approach allows rapid iteration of the UI and UX based on real-time feedback. Just as importantly, industry professionals were interviewed and observed to get feedback on daily workflow of existing solutions. This formed the basis for determining how their tasks could be simplified and accelerated effectively whilst ensuring reliability of installations and operations. Crucially, such systems need to be an open platform, flexible and scalable to ensure they support interoperability and open hardware and software interfaces. For instance, software architecture based on the open standard of the IPv6 Internet Protocol enables wireless communication using a low-power version with IPv6. This operates like a low-energy version of WiFi with networking capability, whilst the application and communication layers also use the usual open standards.

Earlier this year the first such system that enables both wired and wireless communication, and is scalable for any size of building or area, was pre-launched under the name net4more.

A system designed in this way incorporates considerable future proofing, which is extremely important for areas of application that have to operate reliably for many years - for example in office buildings and factories. It also offers building operators the option of integrating their own solutions, whether hardware elements or apps for data analysis or control.

The development of such systems opens up the most direct, most efficient path to the Internet of Light, all facilitated by the growth of LED lighting and the enhanced functionality that it brings. Future developments will focus strongly on the convergence of new technologies and smaller communication modules and sensors, along with new LED luminaires, apps and mobile Internet. All of which will reduce complexity and costs for building owners and operators whilst enabling them to provide additional services through the Internet of Things/Light.

Summary

LED lighting has the potential to deliver major benefits in terms of lighting performance, energy efficiency and cost of ownership. Making the most of this potential necessitates effective control, through control systems that are not just easy to use, but also a pleasure to use. In this way, end users are encouraged to take advantage of all of the functionality available, resulting in a dynamic and responsive lighting system that meets the needs of all stakeholders.

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