The newly renovated Library East Commons at Georgia Institute of Technology isn’t exactly elegant, but it’s ahead of its time—a case study in collaborative work spaces. Gone are the library’s musty reference books and old computers; in their place are sofas and armchairs for the school’s many engineering students to sleep (most days the space is open 24 hours), a café, vending machines, movable tables and task chairs, cord reels dangling from the ceiling, a rear projection screen and—the pièce de résistance—a programmable lighting system.
Charlie Bennett, the library’s “commons coordinator,” points a minimalist-looking remote control, officially known as a “wand,” at each of three spotlights bolted to a metal ceiling grid and presses the “connect” button. All of the spots do not light up, as you might expect them to, but a tiny red light glows at each light’s base. He then points the wand at a wall switch, and a tiny red light glows there too. Bennett walks over to the switch, presses it, and the three lights come on. “I’ve just rewired it,” he declares proudly, adding in sotto voce, “The learning curve is nothing. The hardest thing is calling this a wand. I’ve got another name for it that I shouldn’t tell you.”
The library is one of the first test sites for Convia, an unexcitingly named futuristic new method for rewiring lights, power, and data, and even rezoning the heat and air-conditioning on the fly—without need of a sledgehammer and pliers. Developed by Herman Miller and launched by Convia’s eponymous subsidiary, it aims to overthrow a decades-old tradition in how electrical infrastructure is fixed into the ceiling and walls, which required a call to an electrician or contractor before adding each new outlet or light socket. Using infrared controls and a simple network protocol, the lights, switches, and sensors on a circuit can be reconfigured at the push of a button. Company president Randy Storch articulates the founding proposition in a well-honed sound bite: “You can put wheels on furniture, but until you’re able to move power outlets and data, you don’t have a flexible environment.”
The idea for Convia began to take shape after a chance meeting at the 2001 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference between Herman Miller executives and Danny Hillis, the inventor and parallel computing impresario who cofounded (with Bran Ferren) Applied Minds, a research-and-development lab based in Glendale, California. Prior to their meeting, Herman Miller had begun looking for areas where its experience and design expertise could be applied to expand the company beyond its core business of furniture. Three key growth areas were identified: the pursuit of a smarter working environment, the use of digital technology, and the reduction of construction waste.
Armed with Herman Miller’s research but without a predetermined outcome other than, as Hillis puts it, “something that made people’s life more simple rather than more complicated—no manuals,” Applied Minds began looking at the way buildings are constructed. An “aha!” moment came when they began thinking about space upside down, according to Herman Miller’s chief development officer, Gary Miller. “Danny called me and said that it looks like the amount of attention in built space is inversely proportional to the distance from the floor,” he recalls. “That was powerful.” Chairs, desks, and computers may be well thought out, organized, and easy to operate, but at head height and above, the systems are more antiquated and ad hoc. “By the time you get to the ceilings, you’re dropping in the cheapest stuff,” Hillis adds. “It’s out of sight, out of mind.”
By rethinking interior space from the top down, Hillis’s team was able to envisage a smart infrastructure that solved several problems at the same time. A ceiling-mounted steel grid could provide a kind of plug-and-play chassis for lighting and power outlets as well as a hanging point for movable partitions. (More recent iterations include a modular version for closed ceilings or raised floors.) The idea of organizing the electrical infrastructure is not new to furniture companies; other manufacturers have attempted to get into the business by including it together with their furniture. But Applied Minds came at the problem from a different perspective: its team of computer builders and programmers was able to conceive of the electrical circuit as a decentralized network—like the Internet—accessed virtually with a two-button wand. By “decoupling” the switch so that it is no longer hardwired to the electrical devices on the circuit, Applied Minds revised the whole concept. The switch no longer delivers power to the network but becomes a programmable control unit, connected or disconnected with devices on the grid by the infrared wand.
The computer industry even provided a workable business model for selling the system: instead of getting into the business of making Convia-compatible lighting, diffusers, and other devices, Herman Miller would simply make the basic framework and license the communication protocol to third-party developers in other product categories. “It’s quite distinct from our normal inclination to try to create a supersystem of products,” Miller says. “We’ve tried to encourage others—the people who build walls to bring new thinking into walls, or the people who do HVAC to bring their ambitions into play using the Convia platform as a tool.”
Herman Miller presents its new technology with environmental zeal: if architects and contractors were to adopt it on a wide scale, the need to tear down and rebuild an office space every time a new tenant moves in would be significantly reduced. In addition, if switches can be positioned and programmed to connect to specific devices on the grid, so too can thermostats and motion sensors, enabling considerable energy savings. Warehouses could be reconfigured so that lighting, heat, and cooling are operational only in zones where there is inventory; retail stores could adapt their lighting to changing displays (two major retailers are currently prototyping Convia); and offices could be divided into zones that are more responsive to their occupants. “The process of changing spaces is so expensive and cumbersome,” Hillis says, “that people just live with them, even if they don’t really fit their pattern of work. And one of the things that came out clearly in research is that ‘work’ is changing very rapidly. We’re not doing the same thing we were doing a couple of years ago.”
Back at Georgia Tech, Bennett runs through a series of lighting “scenes” he programmed during a spare ten minutes that morning using the wand. Pushing each of four wall switches, he shifts the lighting from a moody bluish nighttime setting (for movies) to a brightly lit classroom setting. Students in the library look up from their laptops briefly and then resume working. They’re accustomed to Bennett’s “tweaking” and know by now they can move furniture or ask him to provide an extra power outlet.
Progressive universities and retail chains notwithstanding, the hurdles to widespread acceptance of Convia are formidable. Since traditional wiring guarantees a steady supply of rewiring work, electricians (and their unions) may not like the idea that their job is done once Convia is installed. Herman Miller has made successful overtures to large electrical contractors, however, who recognize that Convia’s ease of installation promises a reduction in labor costs and an increase in output per electrician. A greater problem may be perception of cost: though Convia is priced competitively with traditional electrical systems—and being portable, allows for additional depreciation write-offs as well as energy-saving tax credits—it will be seen as high-tech, customized, and therefore expensive.
And as with many disruptive innovations, the other hurdle is explaining how it works. As Hillis sees it, not all employees or students in the space will be expected to know how to reconfigure the system, but they will know whom to ask, paving the way for more concierge-type roles like Bennett’s. Hillis’s only regret is that the wand couldn’t be simplified even further. “We were always frustrated that we couldn’t get it down to one button.”