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A grim prognosis for the humble light switch?

LONDON– ‘There’s no doubt about it.’ This was the emphatic answer of Hoare Lee’s Dominic Meyrick at LuxLive on Wednesday, on a discussion panel tackling the question of whether the light switch is dead.

You have to award him full marks for passion – and for consistency, Meyrick made the same case at the International Lighting Fixture Design conference last July.

Don’t call the priest just yet. Once again his view faced opposition, this time no more vocally than from GOOEE’s Simon Coombes. ‘Definitely not,’ was his assessment, ‘there’ll always be a need for a fallback, a tactile device on the wall.’

‘Because you grew up with one,’ Meyrick chimed in. ‘It’s nurture not nature.’ On that point they could not agree, but it highlights the underlying question: to what extent do users want or expect automation? Here the panel were quick to draw analogies, from gas heating to automobiles, and, inevitably, smart devices.

‘Mobile phone interfaces come and go, but we expect lighting interfaces to stick around,’ said lighting designer Kevan Shaw, when asked why the lighting industry hasn’t kept pace with the trend towards simpler UIs. It’s a good point, but perhaps it overlooks the paradigm shift ushered in by the iPhone in 2007, when smartphones changed from being covered in buttons to having virtually none. The whole-device touchscreen doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Not that touchscreens are necessarily the answer for lighting in the home. There was much debate as to the viability of personalised presence detection – lighting systems that know who’s there, and adjust the lighting to their preferences. Ideaworks’ Kevin Andrews pointed out that this was already possible thanks to devices people increasingly carry at all times, be they smartphones or watches. But there were grumbles about battery life and software updates, though, as Meyrick and Andrews pointed out, battery life is always improving, and software updates decreasingly painful.

Is a willingness to embrace new interfaces generational? ‘No,’ said Coombes. ‘I buy every gadget going. I still want a light switch.’ Andrews agreed. ‘One hundred per cent of our clients say they want something simple and reliable.’ Meyrick, meanwhile, recounted the example of a luddite at work who insisted the new office lighting must have a switch on the wall. His attitude changed when he realised he could remotely turn off senior management’s lighting with an iPad. ‘He hasn’t used a switch since.’

There was some agreement that connected lighting may mean less for how we interact with lighting than it does for all the smart things that can happen in the background, such as energy monitoring. If a consensus formed, it was this: it depends what you mean by a switch. But whether they become fallback devices or evolve into more sophisticated user interfaces, the way we use them looks certain to change.