Conceptualised and designed by acclaimed UK lighting design studio Speirs + Major, the Third Age of Light VR (virtual reality) experience was installed at (d)arc room, as part of the London Design Fair in the Old Truman Brewery, from September 19-22, 2019. The experimental virtual reality experience responded to questions of how attitudes of society interspersed with developing technologies might alter London’s night scape, in the near future.
The experience was based around the questions, "What is public lighting for? How will we experience the urban realm after dark in the future?”
Visitors were able to virtually venture into three areas across London - the South Bank, King’s Cross, and Primrose Hill, encompassed under 15 themes, including well-being, mobility, environment and fashion. This experience created a simulated, artificial environment, (created with software), enabled by special equipment, and primarily experienced through sight and sound.
Mark Major, Principal of Speirs + Major said, “It was created as part of our ongoing education and outreach programme: As designers working with light, we challenged ourselves to speculate on how London may be illuminated in the near future. We believe that technologies and behaviours are emerging in the field of lighting that will impact the way we experience the public realm after dark in the future. The themes we explore aim to create awareness of these possibilities, allowing us to think ahead to the social, economic and environmental opportunities and challenges we may face. Our ideas are not necessarily offered as solutions, nor intended to be a comprehensive review, but we sincerely hope that our efforts will provide visitors with an enjoyable interactive experience that will provoke further thought and discussion.”
Into the Third Age of Light
Humankind trapped naked flame inside portable lanterns, creating controlled illumination. This was the first age of light, where technology had not yet reared its titan head, and this imprisoned flame barely lasted the night.
The dawn of developed, organised industrialised systems of gas, and later on, electric public lighting ushered in the second age of light, which brought with it, an excessive usage of energy. As we can observe in current times, this resulted in wastage of light, light pollution, over-illumination, and a general lack of respect and awareness, both in terms of quality and quantity of light integrated in public places.
Now, under much needed scrutiny, public lighting would be viewed and designed following an enhanced comprehension of our physical, psychological, biological, social and economic requirements. With improved and emerging technologies piercing through the realm of daily life, society will search for alternate routes to augment the day, while handling artificial light as a valuable commodity.
This is the Third Age of Light, where society has realised the environmental consequences of artificial lighting. This, along with advancements in technology, has spearheaded the need to examine the daily lives of people, the way we work, rest, eat and play, from morning and through the night.
Questions arise, as to how public lighting will perform in cities that don’t sleep, how crucial it is to keep people of that city secure and safe, how to support and endure night time economy, provide information, improve legibility, accessibility – all of this and more, following a sustainable approach. Superseding the aforementioned is the development and integration of artificial intelligence, biotech, information technology and other forms of privately controlled illumination, and how this will transform the face of the urban realm.
They take into account luminous surfaces created by bio-luminescence, nanotechnology and passive films creating self-illuminated buildings, artworks and paving. Different variety of bio-engineered plants, grasses, fungi and algae provide supplementary lighting without the need for electricity. They have also delved into food production at night time, benefits of retaining darkness, providing dark zones to combat light pollution and similar issues, reduce human workload, offer security and privacy, all of this and more in a more circular, ecological perspective.
The themes of the VR experience:
1. Augment - What if we had nocturnal vision?
The design team delved into what it would be like if we could see after dark – developments in implants, lenses and bionic eyes proposed enhancements and replacements for our eyes in the future. Technological advancements and genetic engineering would ‘augment’ our night vision, equipping us to see in the dark.
2. Communities - Will people take a more active role in shaping the night?
What would be the result of communities coming together, with a collective comprehension of the societal and economic benefits of artificial lighting in public areas? Designers provided a ‘social light movement’ where the residents came together, to efficiently illuminate community spaces, and make them safer, reduce excessive light pollution and how social media could fast forward this process.
3. Networks - Will micro-robotics and crowd-sensing technology give rise to mobile lighting in cities?
The lighting designers envisioned smart cities like London employing ‘crowd-sensing’ using the geolocation of smartphones. Traditional street lighting would be replaced with swarms of light, drones which would organise themselves instantly over large gatherings, providing temporary and dynamic illumination.
4. Mobility - Will vehicles, bicycles and even pedestrians provide their own light?
Self-driving vehicles with artificial intelligence were envisioned to monitor the locations of each other, cyclists and pedestrians. These became objects of illumination as their external paraphernalia like helmets, clothing, headlights and taillights became the sources of light, drastically reducing the dependence on intensive street lighting.
5. Environmental - Will we see the evolution of protected dark zones in cities?
The experimental VR experience imagined ‘sanctuaries of darkness’ – designated areas in London that enabled people to connect with nature, like parks and other topographical features (man-made and otherwise), which would then reduce and provide strict controls on light use. This helped combat issues of light pollution, light spill, and over-illumination, that prevent us from viewing the stars, and also disrupts sleep patterns.
6. Well-being - Will new technologies and materials enable us to create clearly legible spaces?
Artificial light has been proven to have harmful effects on people over prolonged use, such as disturbed circadian rhythms, depression, and increase in sleeping disorders. Using less public light would ultimately improve our well-being in the long run – the designers visualise a strategic assimilation of surfaces that are integrally luminous, forming clearly legible spaces at low light levels.
7. Energy - Will new forms of localised renewable power combine with bio-luminescence to offer flexible ‘off grid’ light?
There is an intense need to cut down on the energy taken up by street lighting in order to combat rising CO2 emissions. The designers predicted improvements in LED and batteries, use of low-output bioluminescent lighting and biological power sources like trees equipped with plant-microbial fuel cell technology to power amenity lighting, illuminating the streets of London.
8. Communication - Will new technologies allow screens to be merged into almost any surface?
An urban setting relayed information through large public displays or through social networking apps on mobile phones. With the power to fuse screens into almost any surface, ‘Smart dust’ Nano LED technology can be employed to capably further this communication, anywhere, anytime, and without too much infrastructure.
9. Work - Will increased automation completely alter our skylines, leaving our buildings much darker at night?
It would not come as a surprise if robots were to take over the work done by humans in the future – it already is being realised in myriad ways. Imagining London’s buildings and construction sites run by bots, the VR experience showed simulations in which buildings were being built with less illumination and faster speed, the only lights indicating drones, robots, lasers and 3D printers.
10. Play - Will artificial light be re-deployed to promote social and cultural activities?
‘Light for Leisure’ is a thriving idea, where artificial lighting would indulge in prolonging entertainment, sport, shopping, dining, art, music and much more. London’s public realm would support immersive programmes of night-time educational and recreational facilities, markets and events.
11. Culture - Will the built environment become the instrument for creating dynamic atmospheres?
This theme looked into a future where after dark, London’s buildings, pavements, monuments and landscape might become the very instruments to show varying visual compositions created by people and AI (artificial intelligence) working together - where artificial public light, architectural and landscape lighting would be more flexible and be algorithmically controlled.
12. Shopping - Will shop fronts transform into illuminated information displays?
This theme proposed that 3D printing centres might soon replace retail flagship stores, from sourcing goods from other countries to manufacturing them at a local scale. This would change the aesthetic of stores, as rather than showing the product, shops would may assume a more dramatic, night time retail and theatrical character.
13. Fashion - Will we be able to shape the way we look after dark?
Determining how we appear in the dark, the theme conceived people’s self-expression through clothing, make-up, jewellery and footwear, apart from body art and cosmetic surgery. Integrating it with developed technology will produce luminous fabrics and glow in the dark makeup, along with other visible technological fashion statements.
14. Food - Will light for local sustainable crop growth be dominant in the nightscape?
This theme imagined routes towards increasing local food production using LED lighting technology, which helps in underground crop growth in urban farms. Purple light associated with plant growth might become a dominant nightscape colour, with rooftops and parking lots serving as greenhouses. These areas would produce sustainable and organic food after dark, along with supplementing a lit, purplish tone to the cityscape.
15. Identity - Will we use light in new ways to maintain the distinctive character of our city?
Envisaging newer and more exciting ways to light up London’s different districts, artificial light will directly contribute in shelving out a fresher character for the city in the future. Historic areas might still use traditional lanterns, while developing areas might incorporate illumination through integrated technical solutions, and provide a more diverse visual aesthetic to the city.