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Friday01 August 2014

Many hands make light work

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With inventor and magician Adrian Westaway’s Magic Light, you just grab a beam and go

Imagine the following situations: relocating office desks and finding the overhead lights are in the wrong position; a surgeon immersed in an operation needs a wider beam of light; or a shop display has changed and requires newly positioned spotlights.

These are not only irritating and time-consuming situations to resolve — and possibly life-threatening — but they can also be costly. But a lighting technology is being developed that allows the user to grab a beam of light and move it around or make it larger or smaller.

Twenty-seven-year-old inventor Adrian Westaway has spent more than two years developing and refining his Magic Light, a device that allows the user to interact directly with a beam of light as if it were a physical entity, touching it, moving it or stretching it.

“I’m a magician as well as being an electronic engineer,” he reveals, “so the combination of magic, engineering, design and electronics is perfect for me.”

Westaway does seem well suited to such a project. He was 11 years old when he wrote to TV magician Paul Daniels asking him how he makes people disappear. Daniels wrote back and, while not divulging his secret, suggested he read books on the subject. Westaway was hooked. Today he performs magic for friends and family, and still finds time to read magic books. When it came to studying, however, he read electronic engineering at Bristol University before heading off to the Royal College of Art.

The idea for the Magic Light first emerged from a week-long project Westaway did with fellow student Stephanie Chen in the first year of their masters in industrial design engineering at the RCA. The device they came up with was quite crude and didn’t work properly, saysWestaway, but the idea stayed with him and, with Chen’s blessing, he decided to make it the focus of his solo graduation project, and spent three months developing the prototype.

Limited funds and time meant the light device he made in 2007 was, as he puts it, “quite a Frankenstein creation” made up of “bits and bobs”. He says: “The beam could move up and down and left and right, but it didn’t move smoothly and was a basic form I’d rustled together.”

The beam can be locked by means of a hand gesture so that it remains completely still

Nevertheless it generated a lot of interest at his degree show and won Westaway two awards — the James Dyson Innovation Fellowship and an Innovation RCA programme called Selected Works. The prize money paid for a patent on his concept and also paid Westaway a part-time salary to continue developing the device. In January, the evolved design won the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’s 2008 Fellowship for Design. This major fellowship supports a research programme over two years and is worth £30,000 a year.

Westaway says his ambition for the light is that he wants “to give people complete control of lighting. Lighting is often fixed and those that you can control is held down with all kinds of paraphernalia, I want light to move in a natural way.”

He says there is no restriction on the type of light source — it could be a bulb or LEDs and could be recessed or attached to a ceiling, wall or floor. The technology uses video recognition and runs on platforms similar to camera phones. Integrated into the device is intelligent software that allows the camera to look for hand gestures, when it detects a gesture, the beam moves towards it.

Westaway’s latest development is to enable the light beam to be stretched — by grabbing the edge of the beam and pulling it, allowing the beam to grow bigger or smaller. The beam can also be locked by means of a hand gesture so that it remains completely still. He is keen to point out that the beam isn’t constantly moving when people pass by or if they wave their hands about — “It’s intelligent and it knows when it needs to be moved,” he says.

Westaway is now experimenting with different hand gestures and working out how the device responds, as well as working on ways of dimming and softening the beam.

The Magic Light is still two years away from being manufactured. Westaway says it all depends on the application and the quantities involved, but he hopes that by early 2010 the technology will be at a stage where it can be made into prototypes suitable for shops and banquet lighting where spotlights are needed to shine onto tables that need to be set up very quickly.

He says he’s looking for a company to license and co-develop it and when that happens he anticipates it being a very versatile device suitable for lighting buildings in residential, commercial, industrial, retail and medical use. Westaway stresses that the technology and the simple motors in the light are relatively cheap, and estimates that Magic Lights could be produced for about £50 to £60 each.

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