Control Freaks (Russell Fortmeyer, Architectural Record, March 2010) claims that pervasive computer sensors and controls will radically reshape our approach to environmental controls in buildings, architecture more generally and city planning. One extreme example given is a computerised classroom which literally changes shape in response to the needs of the students. The Clemson University "Animated Work Environment" has proximity sensors to detect what the users are doing, it then adjusts not only the lighting but uses motors to move panels suspended above and around the users. In another example computer controlled water jets in the foyer of the Digital Water Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain automatically detect someone approaching and switch off enough of the water curtain to let them pass.
The Crown Entertainment Complex in Melbourne has a set of programmable water jets in the foyer. However, these are separated from the guests and are used with a pre-programmed music and light show with no interaction with the environment and no attempt to use the for environmental conditioning.
Having motor controlled panels as in the Clemson University system looks problematic. Apart from the high cost of installation, there would be issues of maintenance and safety. Perhaps a more feasible way to reconfigure a workplace or classroom is with lighting. Low cost LED computer controlled red - blue - green lights are now becoming affordable. These have been used on new airliners, such as the Boeing 787, to allow the lighting of the cabin to be reconfigured depending on the phase of the flight and the outside conditions. This allows, for example, a warmer sunrise colour to be used to wake the passengers, after a long flight.
In the classroom the programmable lights could be used to optically reconfigure the shape of the room. For an intimate face-to-face discussion the room could be made round by dimming the lighting in the corners. For a traditional lecture, the room could be made fan shaped with the lecturer brightly lit at the apex. For individual work, each student workstation could be surrounded by a darkened space, increasing the sense of separation. This could be done at relatively low cost,m with no moving parts and no maintenance (the LED lights have a lifetime of about 15 years, at least equal to the life of a classroom).