Lighting and illuminated displays shape our relations to urban environments and to one another at night and increasingly during the day by transforming what Kevin Lynch referred to as the “image of the city” (1964). Today, the wide-spread availability of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in combination with embedded, miniaturized computation offer different ways of designing ambient infrastructures. In this dissertation, I explore these alternatives to exploit the programmable and responsive capabilities of LED-based, low-resolution systems. In short, I examine the alternative aesthetic and communications opportunities afforded by a new generation of lighting and display technologies in the city.
I investigate the origins of lighting and displays to illustrate how they have evolved through a complex interleaving of the social and the material. This grounding leads me to develop three design explorations that focus on addressability, mobility and programmability. The first of these explorations, Urban Pixels, presents a wireless network of individual, autonomous physical pixels that can be deployed on any surface in the city. The second, Light Bodies, reconnects with the history of lights-on-people like lanterns that travel through the city with their users. The third, augmented-reality street lighting, provides a layer of programmability for existing infrastructural networks.
Together the historical perspective and design interventions lead to a performative framework of what I call “liberated pixels”, a new generation of lighting and display technologies. Liberated pixels can be placed flexibly within any context and recruited in different situations for aesthetic and ambient information purposes. This vision captures the contingent and emergent nature of “sociomaterial assemblages” (Suchman 2007) to chart holistic technical, aesthetic, and social directions for future infrastructures of “imageability” (Lynch 1964) in the city.