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Electric Sky, Traffic Light Design, and Other Reasons for Paying Attention

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The world is trying to remind you to keep your eyes open, to take nothing for granted. Don’t ignore the quotidian: look there for breakthroughs.

image from wired.co.uk

Consider the electric sky created by a German electric engineering firm to mimic the changing cloudscape of life under the real blue sky. The idea is to improve workers’ senses of well-being by making them feel like they are outside, according to a piece in Wired.co.uk. Each ceiling tile is 50cm square and uses 288 LEDs to make the obligatory millions of colors in the full light spectrum. A diffuser grating — remember the old speaker-cabinet-filled-with-Christmas-lights shop project? — gives the whole thing that gauzy, cloudy effect.

In the Wired article, Dr. Matthias Bues says the fluctuating colors “promote concentration and heighten alertness.” Volunteers who spent time under the panels when they fluctuated slowly, fluctuated rapidly, or remained unchanging preferred the rapid fluctuations, which appear to be most like the real outdoors.

When you really are outdoors, pay attention to something as simple as your traffic signals. This article on Weburbanist.com surveys some awesome new designs that enable signals to give you more information — for example, through hourglasses, countdowns, shapes, or clockfaces — preventing frustration and smoothing flow by letting you know how long you’ll be waiting. Shaped lights help the colorblind, too. You didn’t know how much more you could be getting from your traffic signal until you paid some attention, yes?

Finally, for general attention paying, check out The Spotter’s Guide to Urban Engineering, a new book that falls somewhere between the pocket-handy Field Guide to Roadside Technology and the irreplaceable but unwieldy Infrastructure: The Book of Evertything for the Industrial Landscape. The Spotter’s Guide is sort of the bathroom book that goes between the pocket Field Guide and the encyclopedic Infrastructure. Too big for your pocket yet not overwhelmingly thorough, it’s a great place to dip — how do canal locks work? the world’s most complicated roundabout? a movable bridge that curls instead of lifting or rotating? It’s all here.

Now pay attention.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sciencegoddess 9:36 pm 01/6/2012

    I like the idea of the electric sky! Any idea of the cost?

    I’m paying “blog calls” to all @scio12 attendees and giving your blog a shoutout on twitter. Looking forward to seeing again in just a few weeks!

    Link to this

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