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Rethinking the Light Switch

smartphone-controlled devices

The light switch is a lovely, ordinary thing. One can look at it and understand intuitively that the up position means on and the down position means off. In addition, their placement is so familiar that even in pitch black, you can feel around at the standard height -- four feet from the ground -- until you find the right panel to illuminate an unfamiliar room. At the same, light switches can represent an opportunity to innovatively re-design units and spaces.

Some are questioning: "Why not place the switches horizontally, in exact analogy to the things being controlled?  Cognitive scientist Don Norman, an influential advocate of human-centered design, and imagines a home powered by a wireless network, bypassing the need for traditional behind-the-wall wiring. At the same time, he questions whether a touch screen could ever replace the affordances of a physical switch.  

He goes on to point to several companies who are already producing smartphone-controlled devices around the house, including light switches. This past summer, for instance, Belkin released the WeMo Light Switch. "Its appearance resembles that of a rocker switch," the article's author notes, "with an added light to indicate power." It is basically the design we are all familiar with, with the added ability to turn the light on and off from an iPhone or Android phone. Ohad Zeira, director of product management for WeMo, confesses that little thought was given to whether his team's devices would ultimately offer the opportunity to reinvent the light switch as we know it.

Instead, their goal was to create a light switch that improved upon a function without breaking it. He remarked, "User experience of a switch is so familiar. When you change a physical interface, it needs to have a specific benefit. We maintained a very specific test: no matter what we do, the user needs to be able to come home with a grocery bag under his/her arm and turn on the light. If we failed that, then we failed the day-one functionality of a light switch." In this regard, WeMo is essentially just a remote control for an apartment or house's existing switches and not the digital paradigm shift Norman is calling for. Currently, the WeMo Light Switch sells for $50.

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