Color, control and function are all being reassessed, and new players have emerged like a wave of Silicon Valley start-ups.
AFTER the joy of the birth itself, parenthood sometimes brings the unwelcome news that a newborn has jaundice and must wear goggles and be placed under special lights. Imagine how different this experience might be if there were no goggles, just a warm blanket covering the tiny body, a healing frequency of blue light emanating from its folds.
That comforting scene, already a reality in some hospitals, is evidence of the fundamental rethinking of lighting now under way in research labs, executive offices and investor conferences. Digital revolutionaries have Edison’s 130-year-old industry, and its $100 billion in worldwide revenue, in their sights. Color, control and function are all being reassessed, and new players have emerged like a wave of Silicon Valley start-ups.
“This is the move from the last industrial-age analog technology to a digital technology,” said Fred Maxik, the chief technology officer with the Lighting Science Group Corporation, one of many newer players in the field.
The efforts start with energy efficiency and cost savings but go far beyond replacing inefficient incandescent bulbs. Light’s potential to heal, soothe, invigorate or safeguard people is being exploited to introduce products like the blanket, versions of which are offered by General Electricand in development at Philips, the Dutch electronics giant.
Innovations on the horizon range from smart lampposts that can sense gas hazards to lights harnessed for office productivity or even to cure jet lag. Digital lighting based onlight-emitting diodes — LEDs — offers the opportunity to flit beams delicately across stages like the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — creating a light sculpture more elegant than the garish marketers’ light shows on display in Times Square, Piccadilly Circus and the Shibuya district in Tokyo.
“Up till now we only thought — do I have enough light to see, to clean my room, to cut a diamond?” said Ed Crawford, a senior vice president of Philips Lighting Americas. “Now it impacts what I do, how I feel, in emotional ways.”
In the United States, lighting consumes more than 20 percent of electric power generated each year; the Energy Department says LEDs can cut consumption by up to 80 percent. LEDs — also called solid-state lighting — are already a $12.5 billion business worldwide, according to analysts at the research firm Strategies Unlimited in Mountain View, Calif. A 2012 McKinsey report estimates LEDs will be an $84 billion business by 2020.
But there is an obstacle or two facing the LED revolutionaries. One is existing modes of lighting: Edison’s screw-based socket, the office’s fluorescent ceiling tubes, and metal halide or sodium lights in parking lots are not going away anytime soon.
Another hurdle is public wariness after the environmental exhortations of the 2000s, which led to much-disputed federal legislation to phase out the old incandescents, often in favor of compact fluorescent bulbs. In pursuing their goals, advocates played down problems like the harshness of fluorescent light, and difficulties with dimming the bulbs and dealing with the toxic mercury they contain. Now, some lighting scientists say, both consumers and investors are leery of buying into something they suspect might be substandard.
Another powerful force for continuity is the psychological legacy of light as we know it — from sun to candle to bulb. Isn’t the cartoon shorthand for a new idea a glowing bulb over the thinker’s head?
So some companies are selling the new digital lighting in forms that will fit into the prerevolutionary world, with its sockets and streetlamps — including familiar bulb shapes.
Philips is producing a bulb called Hue that fits into the old sockets and not only dims and brightens, but also changes colors on command. Mr. Crawford said that in his lamps division, 25 percent of sales income now comes from LEDs; he expects it to increase to 50 percent in two years. In 2008, that number was close to zero.
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