Imagine if a street lamp knew you were coming. It could announce your arrival from a distance. If you were on a date, it could help set the mood. It could ring in the new year with dazzling effects, change color at will, even announce days in advance when its bulb was set to blow.
In fact, there is nothing future-tense about this fantastical vision; in a handful of municipalities in Europe, streetlights have become downright chatty.
The system is called Tvilight. It was invented by Dutch designer Chintan Shah while a student at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. When flying overseas, he noticed street lamps lighting streets that, in the middle of the night, were empty and desolate.
"I started researching," he says. "I wondered, why are they burning? How much does it cost? Is this a problem? I discovered some amazing numbers."
Shah found that Europe pays over €10 billion ($13 billion) a year powering street lights, which accounts for more than 40 percent of government energy bills.
This translates into 40 million tons of CO2 emissions annually -- enough to power 20 million cars. His solution was to create an intelligent, "on-demand" lighting system using wireless sensors. Street lights only light up in the presence of a person, bicycle or car, and remain dim the rest of the time. Shah has also developed the technology to distinguish between people and smaller animals, like cats and mice, so it would avoid lighting up unnecessarily.
"I thought, why should each citizen pay for street lights that aren't being used? We now have a solution for that."
Spurred on by his professors, Shah entered the concept in a campus competition and won. Delft handed over their facilities and gave him the financial backing to create a demonstration on campus. Since then, Tvilight has been implemented in four municipalities in Holland and one in Ireland, with many more to come.
"We have inquiries from Israel, Turkey, the United States, Australia, India and Japan. The problem is not a lack of inquiries, it's the team's capacity to deliver the solution worldwide," he says.
Shah reckons the system will slash energy costs and CO2 emissions by 80 percent, and maintenance by another 50 percent, thanks to the integrated wireless sensor that allows lamps to alert a central control center when it's time to be serviced.
It may seem like Tvilight is little more than an innovation in urban planning (albeit, a revolutionary one). Thanks to an atypical partnership with Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, it is also an incredible work of public art.
"(My role) is to drag in the human side as well," says Roosegaarde. "How can we use the technology to make environments more human? More sustainable? More natural? We want to make it like it's your friend, or it's an animal, or it does things you don't know about. It's not just a machine with a feedback loop, but something that has its own intelligence and is willing to negotiate, to hack you in the same way you hack it."
Roosegaarde has helped give Tvilight more complexity, so it is so much more than a lighting system. For example, an ambulance or fire truck could communicate with the lamps to make them flicker red before they drive through.
"It could save the ambulance two minutes because the light could tell everyone it's coming, and they could move aside more quickly because we control the streets, we control the lamps," says Shah. "It could save a life."
Roosegaarde says the uses could be "pragmatic or super poetic."
"Imagine I can write a piece of software, so when I take my girlfriend out for a walk, it does something special, and wow, you have this boulevard of interactive lights," he adds.
It is the type of thinking that garners endless scenarios. Depending on the occasion, street lamps can flicker and change color to create any number of designs. Shah envisions that during a live sporting event, a street could even spell out the score.
"This is not just about saving electricity, it's not just about the medium, it's about the message, and what you want it to generate," says Roosegaarde.