Ambient Communication – Tapio Rosenius

5th December 2023

This is a two-part article on Ambient Communication, an innovative way of conveying information and influencing human behaviour through light in spaces. The first section serves as an introduction to the concept and its application in lighting design. The second part introduces a cutting-edge research framework designed to validate the concept in real-world settings. This framework is exemplified through the results of actual projects in workplace contexts. Our aim is to demonstrate how data-driven, dynamic, real-time lighting can quantifiably impact human behaviour when implemented within the framework of ambient communication. In doing so, we aim to introduce new value to building owners, operators, and lighting designers.

Changing the ambience to drive human behaviour

In 1997, psychologist Adrian North and his team conducted an experiment in a local supermarket, where they set up two identical wine shelves side by side. One shelf was stocked exclusively with French wine, while the other featured German wine. They played different styles of music during various time slots – one with stereotypically French music and the other with German music. When the French music played, sales of French wine increased by an astounding 330%. Conversely, when the German music played, the German wine outsold the French. This experiment vividly demonstrated the profound impact of ambience on our decision-making processes.

What makes this example so powerful is not that the ambience was changed, and not even that it triggered behavioural change, but rather that the ambience was changed in specific relation to the context with a goal to influence a narrowly defined aspect of human behaviour. Furthermore, it was done in a way that allowed the outcome to be measured passively. Here lies the power of Ambient Communication, achieving measurable change in narrowly defined sets of human behaviour. And we believe we can do the same with light.

Definition of Ambient Communication

Ambient communication is a way of conveying information and aiding human behaviour in a space in a peripheral, calm manner using real-time data feeds linked to controlled digital content running lighting, projections, screens, and sound. It allows spaces to sense and respond immediately to people, events, and other variables in a rich way to create engaging and informative environments that remain fresh and contextual.

Ambient communication is used to aid wayfinding, to illuminate invisible information, to encourage positive behaviour, to unlock hybrid uses to existing spaces and to enable designers to optimise interactions and outcomes remotely and in an automated way. Applying this consciously with clear targets to architectural lighting design from the get-go is nothing short of revolutionary.

How does it work?

There are many effects that can be considered as ambient communication, and equally many techniques and variables related to human psychology and physiology. However, we will focus on three technical pointers that can help you get started with applying Ambient Communication in your lighting design work:

Light as a Nudge

A nudge, as defined by University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein in their seminal book of the same name in 2008, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. This makes the use of dynamic light in architectural context particularly well-suited for nudging. It is easy enough to ignore yet immersive enough to have an impact.

Imagine you are entering an office building. On the right-hand side, you see a bank of lifts going up; on the left, you see a large spiral staircase. In the centre of the staircase, a suspended lighting feature pulsates, signalling upward motion. That is a nudge. You can choose freely to take the lift, or you might be intrigued and choose to take the stairs instead. When you get to the stairs, the light responds to you, it flows towards you, stops, and makes it obvious you are now controlling it. Another nudge. You climb up a few floors, playing with the light as you go. The lighting influenced the choice architecture and altered your behaviour. Gently. It nudged you, and this can have massive positive consequences.

Pre-attentive Processing

Pre-attentive Processing

Pre-attentive processing is the subconscious accumulation of information from the environment. Ambient communication delivered with light and media can bypass attentive processing and instead focus on this fast, low-level, pre-conscious visual processes. This is information generated by the environment that is rapidly perceived and then converted to higher-level structured information only when necessary.

Colin Ware, in his book ‘Information Visualisation: Perception for Design,’ defines the four pre-attentive visual properties as follows:

• Colour

• Form

• Movement

• Spatial Positioning

They are all processed in our sensory memory without our conscious thought. Notably, all four of these visual properties can be influenced by lighting design and are readily controllable with real-time digital content when utilised for the purpose of controlling ambient lighting, accent lighting, projections, and screens. Layering meaningful lighting interventions that combine colour, form, movement, and spatial positioning is a guaranteed way to deliver subtle cues and nudges to people, but you need to know when.

Contextual Scheduling

For ambient communication to be meaningful and yield results, any change in the visual environment that signals specific information must be timely and non-repetitive. It needs to provide intrigue, surprise, or alternatively, appear so firmly tied into its context as to be intuitive.

To be successful, the effect cannot always be the same, nor can it happen at the same time. For this, Contextual Scheduling is needed. This means the control system must receive sets of live data from the particular space, as well as prompts such as time, and calendar events, and then be able to formulate a response designed to drive particular behaviours at that very moment. It is the combination of these data inputs that enables the scheduling to function in real-time and remain contextual.

In practice, the desired effect that represents the ambient information is generated by parametric digital content engines that must be fine-tuned and adjusted as part of the lighting designers’ work. This “artistic direction” is essential to convey the prompts within the overall design look and feel of the project. Similarly, the data inputs must be chosen by the designers to support the overall concept narrative and the desired behavioural outcomes. The data inputs can include, for example, live people quantity and movement directions, crowd density, demographics data, time of day, noise levels, daylight conditions, air quality, weather, and calendar events or client-specific data streams. The designers’ goal is to deliver a scheme that automatically understands what is happening in the space in the specific context and then serve optimised, right-on-time ambient communication interventions that meet the design goals.

Into the Future

In harnessing the power of Ambient Communication, we propose to embark on a collective journey towards not only transforming physical spaces, but also shaping human experiences. It offers a nuanced approach to influencing behaviour, seamlessly integrating with the architecture. As we continue to delve into this innovative realm, the potential for creativity and impact appears limitless. Lighting assumes a new role, a new reason to exist. The lighting designer’s role evolves and pivots toward higher value. The fusion of technology and design, as exemplified by Ambient Communication, paves the way for a future where our environments become dynamic, responsive companions in our daily lives. And we believe we can do this with light.