Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2012: Blinking Lights

I’m looking for big changes in indoor lighting in 2012, changes so big they’ll be a threshold event for the economy. It seems like everything that’s coming down in lighting is about to hit around the same time.

First, of course, there is the U.S. government mandate for higher efficiency in indoor lighting. All the news people are saying this will be the end of the incandescent light bulb, but that’s not likely at all. Engineers are already showing prototypes of incandescent bulbs that meet the new standards. The high-efficiency incandescent bulbs will cost more than traditional light bulbs, but they’ll work anywhere, and that’s a claim that the much-hyped fluorescent lights can’t make. Manufacturers are working on several other ways to make incandescent lights more efficient, and you can be sure they will be rushing to get them to market in time for the 2012 U.S. deadline.

Compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) is more stable than traditional fluorescent tubes, but it’s still annoyingly unstable, producing a subliminal flicker that changes whenever the electric power gets the slightest bit flaky. No one is expecting any sudden breakthroughs in this area, but in the next three years, CFLs are likely to improve enough that people will look at them and say, “Okay, I can live with that.”

LED, though, is the lighting technology that is changing fastest and will make the biggest difference. Manufacturing costs for LED lights have improved enough in the past five years to make them the unquestioned leader in colored lights, something you may have noticed if you have looked at traffic lights and turn signals recently. LEDs form the huge display screens that U2 and others have taken along on music tours, and around 2012 high-powered LEDs are likely to become efficient enough that they can serve as stage lights. Expensive to buy, but much more efficient than filtered incandescent stage lights, LED stage lights will eliminate half the equipment that’s currently needed to light a stage. And while that might sound like an obscure technical change, it is a really big deal.

First, it will change what happens on stage. The experience of the stage for the last 75 years has been centered on the hot lights. If you have never been a stage performer, you would be amazed at how hot the stage gets as soon as the lights go on. LED lights, though, are 10 times as efficient, producing relatively little waste heat. That makes them lukewarm instead of hot. With less heat to disperse, lamps can shrink to half their current size and a tenth of the weight, the huge steel lighting rig that holds up stage lights can be replaced with a comparative flimsy plastic structure, and for a touring band, the size of the whole stage show will be a good deal smaller.

LEDs also turn on and off more easily than any other light source, so stage lighting can rely more on quick flashes of light and blinking lights than before. When you see this, you may think it is amazingly cool.

You might even want to take the stage lights home. And from everything I’ve heard, you’ll be able to. Regular LED accent lights for home should, in principle, work just fine with a simple, cheap lighting controller. And while this might sound like a big waste of energy, it isn’t. Instead, it saves energy. Flashing colored LED lights use less energy than white room lighting — of any technology — that stays on. The LEDs, which last for generations anyway, apparently last longer if you turn them off and on than if you just leave them on. When we can have stage lighting at home, at a lower energy cost than regular white room lighting, some people will want to do it. In 2012, LED lights will still be expensive, but they’ll be below the psychologically important $100 level, and they’ll be easy to justify financially, for anyone who wants to buy them, as an investment in energy savings.

I’m not saying the blinking-light fad will make quick inroads in the respectable suburban home or corporate office, but certainly in a dorm room and a downtown loft, at a party, and in a clothing store, you are going to see blinking and moving colored lights. For nearly a century we’ve worked with the assumption that room lighting is supposed to be stable and motionless, but by 2012, three years from now, stable room lighting will go from being a universal assumption to being a lifestyle choice. I believe stable room lighting will be a style that implies an air of class and luxury — class, because it is the old-fashioned way of doing things, and luxury, because it costs extra.

Blinking lights have been a fixture at dance clubs for 40 years. They make people want to move. Dance clubs take this to extremes, but even subtle variations in lighting, on the same scale that you see when a breeze shifts the leaves on a tree overhead, can energize or relax people. Think of it as mood lighting that actually works. Some people will find that adding dynamic lighting will improve their productivity by 10 percent or more; others will just find the more intrusive lighting styles annoying. Still, a 10 percent improvement in productivity for just some people will be a transformative event for an economy that struggles to eke out 3 percent growth in consecutive years. People haven’t started thinking about this yet because you can’t really do it with incandescent or fluorescent lighting, but it should be a simple thing with LED lights and a tiny bit of electronics.

Even in places where you want a steady light, the ability of LED lights to turn on and off or go dim and bright at a moment’s notice can save energy. An average suburban supermarket could cut its lighting bill in half by automatically dimming the lights in aisles where no customers were looking. When you sit down at a desk in an office, the lights over the rest of the room could go dim, while the desk light automatically brightens. A hallway could be lit with dim blue lights located near the floor, with white lights turned on only for sections where people are actually walking. I am sure this kind of thing will be unnerving at first, but the energy savings will be nothing to sneeze at. We are so focused this year on ways to make light bulbs brighter that we haven’t stopped to think of better ways to turn them on and off.

And these are just some of the changes that are coming around 2012. You’ve seen those shoes that light up, right? Well, why just shoes?

More efficient indoor lighting. Lower lighting bills. Colored lights. Blinking lights. Party lights 24/7. Automatic dimmers. 2012. The world will never be the same.