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.
"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.
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 Electric and in development at Philips. "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 PhilipsLighting Americas.
Philips is producing a bulb called Hue that fits into the old sockets and not only dims and brightens, but also changes colours on command. Crawford said that in his lamps division, 25 per cent of sales income now comes from LEDs; he expects it to increase to 50 per cent in two years. In 2008, that number was close to zero.
The cost barrier is getting lower. Until recently, it typically cost $30 to buy an LED that could replace a 60-watt glass incandescent bulb bought for less than a dollar. Now Cree, a semiconductor manufacturer, has 40-watt and 60-watt LED equivalents for $10 and $14.
Lighting Science has teamed up with Google to develop a light bulb — soon to be available — that is controllable with an Android phone app.
Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Center at the university, said that with the new technology there could be light-generating ceilings or walls.
Streets with no lamp posts
Engineers like Maxik at Lighting Science are now imagining cities that light their streets as needed, without benefit of lamp posts.
He has created a fixture that could replace the reflective medians. Once installed, they provide as much illumination as street lamps. The metal and wiring that go into the streetlamp would be unnecessary. The new systems could sharply cut the cost of street lighting. The data could be sold to app developers who could create, say, an app to help find parking.
Osram Sylvania's researchers are looking to control light to improve office productivity. As Lori Brock, director of research and innovation at the company's technology lab in Massachusetts, said: "It optimises the illumination for the task you're doing. If you sat at your desk to use the computer, maybe the overhead light would dim, increasing the contrast so you could see better." Ideally, productivity increases while energy costs decrease.
The Lighting Research Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has focused its research on the physiological and psychological impacts of light. This might lead to light fixtures in hotel rooms and elsewhere that enhance sleep or restore the circadian rhythms of jet-lagged travelers.
Philips's lighting division is working on a product that allows people with psoriasis to have light treatments at home, not in the hospital. It has also introduced a blue-light-emitting poultice to relieve muscle pain by releasing the nitric oxide in the patient's system, stimulating blood flow.