Predict hand distance with the device light JavaScript API

by Mate Marschalko

I got excited about the device light event while I was exploring JavaScript hardware and sensor accessing APIs. I thought I could try using it to approximate object distance from the phone display. Before writing this article I asked the community to try and guess the JavaScript technology used in the demo by publishing the example video with no further explanation. I had great feedback and got the right answer from Ian Brennan after two days.


The device light event is a native JavaScript API accessing the light sensor built into mobile phones and a few laptops. There are two events to use and ‘lightlevel’ only returns three states: dim, normal and bright. This is great but we are interested in raw values. The other event called ‘devicelight’ gives us exactly that. Here are the examples outputting the returned values of both events:

if('ondevicelight' in window){
    window.addEventListener('devicelight', function(event) {
        // light level is returned in lux units

if('onlightlevel' in window){
    window.addEventListener('lightlevel', function(event) {
        // light value can be dim, normal or bright
Trying out the difference device light events

I was happy with the data and I thought I could use it to build a simple theremin. To generate the tone and change the frequency I used the WebAudio API. First I started playing a constant tone:

var audioCtx = new (AudioContext || webkitAudioContext)(),
    osc = audioCtx.createOscillator();

osc.type = 'triangle';

Then I changed the frequency with the .frequency method:

osc.frequency.value = numberFromLightSensor;

Here’s how the demo looked after:

You might ask why we didn’t use the Proximity API for this task. Firstly, the proximity sensor this API accesses only detects up to around 10 centimetres. Also, it only returns near or far and not the actual distance in centimeters.

Please note that both the devicelight and the proximity APIs are currently only supported on Firefox.

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