If you’re reading this right now, then chances are there is something wonky with your circadian rhythm. As the glaring blue light from the screen is received by the photoreceptor cells in the eyes, messages are sent to the brain telling it to energise and jumpstart various metabolic processes — no matter what time of night or day it is. For a digital milieu that never really ‘unplugs’ (most are guilty of checking their messages or watching Netflix at bedtime), these constant small disruptions to natural biological cycles can turn into massive health problems when the body cannot tell when it is time to turn off and reboot. Enter LYS, the first ever light-measuring wearable.
Founded by 28 year-old Danish designer and engineer Christina Petersen, LYS (named after the Danish word for ‘light’ and pronounced ‘loose’) is a small device that clips on to clothing. Throughout the day, LYS keeps track of all of the light that the wearer is exposed to, producing actionable data that can then be used to understand more accurately how light affects them and their overall wellbeing. “Without light, no life would exist on the planet,” Petersen pointed out. “We all have circadian rhythms. All the small cells in the body and bacteria that live in us have circadian rhythms.” The device, which connects to a mobile phone app, provides the user with specific daily goals, such as getting enough natural daylight during the day and avoiding blue light two-to-three hours before sleep. By way of these goals and insights, users can modify their behaviour to keep their circadian rhythm in tune.
But, reorienting oneself and one’s behaviours around light is no easy task in the 21st Century. “They call [us] the indoor generation — we spend so much time indoors,” Petersen explained, “We actually spend more time indoors than the cave people did. We just do not get enough light during the day to stimulate the circadian system and we get too much light in the evening; from energy efficient light bulbs, to computer screens and start phones.” LYS provides the insights that can lead to the small changes that make a difference, like sitting near a window at the canteen during lunch time or using different kinds of light bulbs around the house. From the first 100 test users of the product, which launched last year, Petersen said that “users made this kind of map in their head, where they started to understand what type of light they receive from different surroundings.” Once the users are aware of their physical and digital environments and how those different environments affect them, they can make the small changes that slowly re-align the 24 circadian cycle.
While reconfiguring one’s circadian rhythm may seem like an unnecessary and difficult lifestyle adjustment, or even like a persnickety health trend, it is actually an incredibly important change to make. Petersen explained how “blue light that peaks at 480 nanometers delays melatonin production in the brain…they’ve done studies on nurses who work night shifts and they found that night shift workers have higher incidents — up to 50%higher — of cancer, purely associated with their melatonin levels.” LYS can help the wearer detect and avoid the kinds of light that delay the production of melatonin — a naturally occurring hormone in the brain that aids sleep and relaxation in the brain. Among serving other functions, LYS may be the urban remedy that a technologically overloaded generation desperately needs.
Fittingly, LYS, started out as a pet project in Petersen’s graduate course at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in Innovation Design Engineering. The idea came about from a prompt asking the class to solve a problem in future urban environments. “I was sitting in a studio and we had these fluorescent light tubes — very blue/white light tubes,” Petersen recalled. “It was night, and it felt very unnatural and uncomfortable. I was trying to brainstorm, and it was shattering my concentration.” At the time, computer-chip design and manufacturing company Intel was working with the RCA, and they loved Petersen’s idea. She got the opportunity to present the prototype of LYS to the American Intel team. Spurred by her successes, Petersen applied and was accepted to a female entrepreneurship programme at Imperial College London where her mentor pushed her to continue developing the product. From there a Kickstarter campaign was started, and the LYS team ended up crowdfunding more than £15,000 over the £40,000 goal. As of December, over 700 LYS devices have hit the market and are being worn by users all over the world.
But, LYS seems to present somewhat of a paradox. It is a technology — well, really a cybernetic enhancement — designed to help the user avoid technology. “It’s quite the never-ending cycle,” Petersen said, “We’re trying to make people live more in sync with nature with technology. But, I think we have to work with the society that we live in.” Petersen explains the fine line between a helpful tool and techno-fetishist enhancement as that which makes the user dumber or smarter: “A really silly example is the alarm clock,” Petersen laughed. “We actually have that function inside us — to wake up at the same time everyday — if we just allowed our bodies to do so. Now, we trust our iPhone alarm clocks more than we trust our own bodies.” This difference defines whether a new technology is harmful or beneficial. The question to ask oneself, as Petersen explains, is “is that [new technological feature] something that we listen to instead of listening to our bodies? Or is that something new that’s helping us to do things that our bodies couldn’t do before?”
Rather than taking the users away from the natural world and estranging them from their own body, LYS empowers users to take control of their data and thus take control of their wellbeing. With a few significant successes under the team’s belt, LYS is just starting to expand, and, in the future, may include even more enhancements that will empower users to reorient their lifestyle around healthy light cycles. A second round of investment is currently underway, which will help to fund some of Petersen’s biggest ideas. These include, to name a few, light-filter glasses and special adjustable light bulbs for the home that would work with the data accumulated by the LYS device and mobile software to create healthy light environments.
None of these achievements could have been accomplished had Petersen not taken a great leap. During the time of her undergraduate study, in which Petersen was pursuing a degree in fashion design, she never would have known that in a few years time she would be running her own start up tech company. “I wasn’t an especially techie person before,” Petersen explained, “so having to design electrical architecture and understanding how to do all of this well is probably the biggest challenge.” But, as Petersen mentions, the key is relying on her intuition and following her gut. Her advice for all young people, especially young women, who may not think that they are capable of working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): “Just go for it.”