Digital Windows Could Improve Health

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015
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Futurists have long predicted that urbanisation will significantly reduce dwelling size in the some of the world’s largest cities.

Backyards and courtyards are expected to diminish with the rise of the micro-apartment, offering people just a few square metres of space.

As a result, windows and natural light are set to become rarer. Windowless spaces could even become commonplace according to interactive designer Bernardo Schorr.

“Windowless living is a reality for lower classes in many densely populated areas already; Hong Kong and Beijing for instance,” he said. “(Even) windowless bedrooms are advertised and rented in Paris and New York, even if other rooms in the apartment have windows.”

He believes windowless living will become a big enough trend that products will be developed to target those living in such accommodations, and the shift could come sooner than we think.

While people can place pot plants inside apartments for a touch of nature and to help with air quality, windowless dwellings will still lack natural light.

According to Schorr, there will be options for digitally mimicking the light that would normally come in through windows.

Instead of a looking at a plain wall, people will be able to see a streetscape with people walking by or a natural setting.

Schorr created this concept for his recent thesis project and it’s obtaining global coverage for its innovation and potential viability.

It’s called Mixed Reality Living Spaces and consists of digital windows that can show a variety of scenes.

“Digital technologies will allow us to immerse in different spaces within the same environment, providing a relief from the sensation of confinement,” Schorr said. “Through digital augmentation, each person will live in a space that is presented in several different forms throughout a normal day: a bedroom, an office, a library, a dining room…and many more.”

The digital windows can change settings and respond to the movement of the transformer furniture

The digital windows can change settings and respond to the movement of the transformer furniture

Kevin Dinh, a partner at boutique light firm Light-Box Studio in Melbourne, is intrigued by the Mixed Reality concept. Like Schorr, he sees opportunities in cities including Manila, Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo where residents in small spaces are disconnected to natural daylight and the outside world.

“I tend to agree with (Schorr’s) view on natural light being a luxury commodity,” he said. “As the population grows higher, we will be forced to live in more confined spaces where access to daylight might not be readily available.”

“The concept does provide a creative idea to bring back the connection while quickly changing the space to cater for different needs.”

Mixed Reality sees wall content developed from a mixture of computer graphics, photography, vector art and video reflected on walls. In Schorr’s prototype, rear projection screens were used, which both Schorr and Dinh recognise as unsuitable for implementation as it would require extra space.

“This is a conceptual experience prototype still,” Schorr said.

Dinh noted that front projection would require bulky projectors to be placed within the room, removing the opportunity for the room to feel spacious, minimal and offer shadow-free projection.

Schorr feels LED screens and thin form factor displays could provide a olutions, though Dinh believes that with current LED technology, the power consumption to operate digital windows would be quite high and could generate a large amount of heat which needs to be dissipated efficiently.

“This is required for the performance and longevity of the LED displays as well as the comfort of the occupants,” Dinh said. “Viewing angles might also interfere with the overall experience (at least with LED displays) if the users are not right in the middle of the room. Other matters such as running costs, maintenance costs etc. will also need to be considered.”

Dinh noted that upwards of 60 per cent of electricity powering LED lights is typically converted to heat.

“Assuming a small room, say 3.5 metres by three metres by 2.7 metres high with LED displays on four walls, using an average power consumption of 150 watts per square metre for LED display (typical for current LED TV display), the total power consumption is in the order of 5.3 kilowatt/hours with an indicative 3.7 kilowatts of heat,” he said. “It’s like the heat generated by 60 laptops all running at the same time in a small room.”

He believes OLED (organic LED) displays could be a future technical consideration for digital windows as they consume less energy and may produce less heat.

Dinh also offered an energy calculation.

“To put it into perspective, assume the display is used five hours a day, 365 days a year and electricity cost is 15 cents per kilowatt/hour,” he said. “The electricity cost to run the displays is in the order of AU$1,450 per annum or AU$120 per month.”

Despite its current limitations, aesthetically, Mixed Reality has a lot to offer. It provides graphics similar to a traditional interior but the user has digital flexibility.

“As much as you would want your home to look like your own, the appearance of the mixed reality home pertains to whoever lives in that space,” Schorr said. “But with the advantage that, in the case where you would want a particular setting, a cocktail bar for date night for example, you could simply download it.”

“In terms of control, the idea behind Mixed Reality Living Spaces is to make the interface disappear completely. As the user rearranges the furniture for a very practical, physical need, the digital counterpart  is aware of it.”

When it comes to health benefits, mounting evidence shows that light in general makes people feel more active. Australia’s Cancer Council recommends a few minutes a day outside to ensure natural daylight delivers Vitamin D and serotonin.

While Mixed Reality could not directly replace natural light, it could help mimic it, similar to the role of light therapy.

While examples of “micro-apartments” are regularly reported across Paris, Rome and Hong Kong, Australia has standards in place to ensure that natural daylight is made available to occupants.

Dinh noted that “the Building Code of Australia states that ‘habitable rooms’ require permanent access to fresh air and natural daylight.”

“I also note that the population density in Australia is lower than that of other countries.”

This could change, however, as urban centres such as Sydney and Melbourne continue to boom.

Schorr is not suggesting artificial light as a total replacement for natural light; his project looks specifically at windowless rooms. He is also circumspect about whether his concept is a real solution.

“As much as the project envisions a solution for the issue of confinement, it also provides an opportunity for critical reflection on the subject: is this really the direction we should be heading towards?” he asks.

“In the case where this is inevitable, then sure, I believe it provides relief from the feeling of isolation. The space is set to not only mimic windows, but also the weather and time of the day outside, as a way to connect the individuals with the real world.”

Dinh agrees, provided a few issues are resolved.

”It does make me feel that the mood and feel of the room can be improved significantly with the projections compared to four blank walls,” he said.

“We have already been using electrical lighting to mimic daylight such as the circadian rhythm lighting in nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, etc. to help improve occupant’s mood, concentration and aid sleep wake cycle.”

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