Blaze of glory

“Every light is a shade, compared to the higher lights, till you come to the sun; and every shade is a light, compared to the deeper shades, till you come to the night.” —John Ruskin (1879).

We filter information around us as a way to handle the sheer volume of stimulus in our field of perception. Our brain stitches together these fragments of information, constructing a reality for us, all the while taking liberty with the fidelity of the narrative it feeds back to us. We are prone to reading and misreading our surrounds, susceptible to gaps in perception, so light isn’t always guaranteed to catch our eye. In a field of darkness that is littered with distractions and pockets of moving light, how does one highlight their presence?

The Harvard Innovation lab has just released a product designed to pull our attention on the roads; a cyclist helmet with live signals indicating the wearer’s next move. Cutting through the darkness is not only about navigation – staying in view of drivers around you is essential when cycling at night. Playing on perceptual constancy we are able to draw focus to objects that surround us that we should be aware of.

cyclist helmet with live signals indicating the wearer’s next move

This light for the night cyclist is called Lumos and the light itself comprises of more than 60 LEDs, which are brighter and more prominent than your average clip on bike light. The light serves as a turning signal indicator, as well as a brake light. The brake light is triggered when the built-in accelerometer senses your speed dropping. The turning signals are controlled by a wireless remote attachment you place on the handlebars. When the battery runs low you can simply plug it in to charge via USB.

a cyclist helmet with live signals indicating the wearer’s next move

Products like this work because we are constantly searching for unfamiliar objects in the landscape. One way we do this is by reading a change in the luminosity of an area surrounding an object. This contrast in luminosity draws our attention. Our visual system does not take a single measurement of luminance, like a machine would, rather it adjusts. This is known as lightness constancy and is central to perception. To perceive the world in properties of colour, size and shape is not always explicitly available in the retinal image. Therefore to extract luminance information it must be combined across space. A sudden shift in this information, an unexpected flash of light, changes the surrounding atmosphere and draws the eye.

Thus, making your presence known in the dark is not only about a constant stream of blinking light, but an intentional use of light that also conveys a layer of information – such as a turning signal for instance. So for light to not blur into the background, and for the sake of safety, blaze of glory may mean a controlled stream of illumination.

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