What is that Blinking Light Trying to Say?

Tiny lights can be found on myriad electronic devices from toothbrushes and wristwatches to mobile phones and modems. All of these gadgets use flashing LED lights to communicate information in a slightly different way. While some light blinks make sense to many of us, not all are intuitive. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University wondered if some patterns were more universally recognizable than others. What’s the range of information that a simple blinking light can express?

To find out, the researchers explored more than 20 different light patterns and surveyed participants via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online system for crowdsourcing questions. Participants surveyed in the study automatically linked certain light-flashing patterns on a mobile phone with certain functions.

  • Notifications = Beacon, Bright Flash, and On with Bright Flash behaviors
  • Active = Random Brightness and SOS Blink behaviors
  • Low Energy State = Pulse Slow and Fast In Slow Out behaviors
  • Turning On = Staircase Continuous behavior

The researchers suggest that designers have only begun to tap the potential of simple lights to convey a message. They propose a “light vocabulary,” that could be expanded and include not only the timing and intensity of a point of light, but color, size, shape, directionality, and diffuseness as well.

A video summary is here:

The paper is here:

Unlocking the Expressivity of Point Lights

The conference at which it was presented is here:


An example of a robot that communicates using flashing lights and bleep-bleep noises is here:

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