The Yonder Lamp

A digital window to the sky across the world

Published
December 18, 2015
Reading Time
3 minutes

“But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it’s the east, but the Yonder lamp at IDEO Tokyo (which takes its name from this famous quote) brings in the light from the west—way west. The lamp projects the daylight outside IDEO’s London studio, like a digital window to the sky across the world. A sensor in London detects the brightness and color temperature of the light and sends the information to the lamp in Japan, which then casts that same light. Yonder is the creation of Martin Brown, a designer in the London studio currently doing a stint in Tokyo. Martin shared with Labs both the tech specs and the philosophy behind this futuristic take on dramatic lighting.

What inspired you to start this project?
We’ve been doing a lot of thinking and work around the Internet of Things, and to be honest, a lot of the supposedly functional benefits don’t actually add up. I mean, is it really simpler to control my lights, washing machine, and toaster through my phone rather than just using the switch? What is interesting, though, are the potential ephemeral and emotive experiences that IoT can enable. One example I found inspiring is how you can send your heartbeat through the iWatch. That’s a lovely idea—I’ve got a 2-month-old baby who loves to sleep on top of me precisely because there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about another human’s heartbeat. The fact that technology can enable this experience over distance is a beautiful thing, and something I was curious to explore.

Sensor + Lamp1

The sensor and lamp

Why a lamp?
In watching the Internet grow and transform over the past 20-odd years, it seems that what people really, really want to do with technology is communicate. So many of the super successful companies have basically been communication machines: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Gmail, etc. So I started to think about how the IoT could mediate new forms of communication. I’m an Australian living abroad and I Skype with my family on a weekly basis, but I wondered how could have another form of communication—some kind of shared experience. With the lamp, I can send the sensor to my family in Australia, and as I sit in London late in the evening, the lamp will come to life with a reddish glow as the Australian sun rises. There will be this weird connection: My nighttime is being lit with the hue and brightness of the Australian sun. It’s a reminder not so much of what, exactly, is going on across the globe, but of the fact that something is happening, which is a strangely comforting thought.

What experience did you have with connected things before you began this project?
I’d had very little experience actually building things like this myself. A big reason I did this project was to learn some Arduino and Processing and just get my head around some of the basic IoT prototyping tools. I come from a communication design background, so these were all new to me.

What were the biggest challenges?
As my colleague Miha Feus told me very early on, “In the Internet of Things, it’s not the Things that are hard, it’s the Internet.” There were several challenges, and I give a massive hats-off to Kosta Frantzis for solving most of them when it got too hard for me. The first difficulty was getting the Hue lighting system to talk to the sensor through Processing, which took a while because we had to translate the color values from RGB to HSB and get it running through our network. We got that working, but our computer had to be plugged into it and running all the time—which, of course, is not practical. Then Kosta managed to port over all the Processing code to run off the Arduino itself. That worked great, provided it was all wired into the same local network.

How did you get it to work over the Internet?
There’s no public remote API for Hue, so instead, the sensor is sending color values through IFTTT. They’ve set up a Maker channel, which allows you to send web requests that trigger a Hue recipe. With Yonder, I’m sending a HEX value to the Maker IFTTT channel, which then passes that value on to the Hue IFTTT channel, which sends a request to my Hue bridge. It’s an ugly workaround, but it works.

It goes something like this:
1. Sensor—Reads light and color values of its environment at IDEO London.
2. Arduino—Converts color values to HSB, using the hue and saturation from the color sensor and the brightness from the light sensor.
3. Arduino—Converts HSB to HEX and sends a command every five minutes to the IFTTT Maker channel.
4. IFTTT—The Maker channel receives the color value and passes it to the Philips Hue channel.
5. Philips API—My account receives the instructions from IFTTT and sends it to my Hue Bridge.
6. Hue Bridge—The bridge sits on an Ethernet port at IDEO Tokyo and sends the color value to the lamp, which wirelessly networks with the bridge.

Sensor in London

The sensor in London

What did you learn through building this?
Most of what the lamp is made from was salvaged from things I found around the office. The lamp cable and switch were ripped out of an IKEA lamp; the translucent Perspex lampshade is a Muji stationery box. Most of the code was repurposed from things we found hunting around online. So basically, I learned that it’s amazing what you can patch together using a few off-the-shelf components, some leftover office equipment, a couple of tools, and some found code.

What is the emotional impact of the lamp?
It’s now up and running in the Tokyo office. It turns on each day at about 4pm with the grey wisps of the English winter light. Without any overt explanation on the lamp itself of what it’s showing, it’s a subtle reminder for me that all my friends half a world away are waking up, and that as my day ends, theirs begins.