Project Firefly: Smart lighting devices

The Challenge

According to a recent review, made in association with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, UK Trade and Investment, and the Lighting Industry Association, UK lighting consumes 58,000 TWh per year, and using smart and effective lighting controls, communications and energy efficient lighting could drop this to 4-6% of the total.

Professor Alan Dix and Dr Joe Finney came up with Project Firefly - the idea of giving fairy lights a ‘technological upgrade' to create a world where every light source has an integrated computer, capable of self-organising with its neighbours to form two- and three-dimensional ad hoc displays. They wanted to investigate whether this concept was feasible by applying computing concepts to display technology, to see if they could create a commercial product from this novel light technology. 

The Solution

Dr Finney and Professor Dix, from the School of Computing and Communications, built prototypes to create smart lighting devices capable of communication and self-organizing behaviour, scalability to enable the interoperation of thousands of such devices, calibrated the devices to form coherent 2D/3D displays.

Key Features of Firefly

  • Each light contains a miniature computer making them individually controllable
  • Patterns and effects are much easier to create and can be far more intricate and dynamic than those currently available
  • Can be hung in any order, anywhere, in any configuration
  • Can calculate for themselves where they have been placed in relation to each other
  • Random collection of lights can be turned into a structured 2D, or even 3D, display
  • Require fewer cables than current systems


Project Firefly was funded through the e-Campus project, a major initiative at Lancaster University that is exploring new public display technologies and their applications.

Potential Impact

As well as being fun, this technology has great commercial promise. Eventually, the lights could revolutionise lighting display, holding great potential for advertisers. There are many potential application domains for this technology, ranging from art installations in malls and hotels, architectural and festive lighting, and ad hoc deployments in public places, such as stadiums, interactive exhibits, miniaturised ‘holographic’ displays, smart environments, and ubiquitous computing.

Moreover, this technology encourages incremental deployment - as more devices are deployed, the better the effect. Finally, artists see this technology as a potentially new medium, with the ad hoc deployment being key to public engagement.

Benefits to the University

  • Helped create a new product through academic innovation

Benefits to Society

  • The lights could revolutionise lighting displays, creating great potential for advertisers

Researcher Feedback

"This project really highlights how modern computer science is being used to support a whole new wave of innovative products and applications. As the cost and size of computers shrink, we'll see more and more examples like this of computing making our world better and easier. Firefly is one example of the way we seek to explore this changing role of computer science technology and innovation in our many research projects and our degree programmes at Lancaster University Computing Department." Dr Joe Finney, School of Computing and Communications, Lancaster University.

Future Plans

Project Firefly is currently active in evaluating large scale deployments and developing higher definition displays. The team are also working with Blackpool Illuminations to explore new and innovative lighting control systems. There is also the potential to commercialise the smart lighting to sell to clients.

With funding from the university, applications to patent the technology have been filed and the team are now in negotiation with several local manufacturing companies to develop the product on a commercial scale under licence.