Navigant Research Blog

Lighting Colors Evolve for Human Needs

Jesse Foote — June 9, 2014

Complaining about the color of artificial light is nothing new.  Ever since fluorescent lighting took over office spaces decades ago, it has been criticized as harsh and sterile.  When compact fluorescent lights began making their way into homes 10 years ago, those same complaints followed them, leading many homeowners to cling to their drastically less efficient incandescent lighting.  The situation with outdoor lighting has been even worse, with the dominant high-pressure sodium lamps producing a monochromatic yellow light that makes object identification much more difficult.

Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting has shared some of the same color criticisms as fluorescent lighting, with many finding it harsh or unpleasant.  Advancing technology, however, has made it possible for LEDs to emit light of any color and to change the color of the light in real-time.  My colleague Madeline Bergner explored some of the new LED products that imitate incandescent lighting in a recent blog.  This will surely help silence the critics of color quality, but also raises the question of just what color light we should be using.

Color Me Productive

A number of creative uses of the color tuning ability of LEDs are already being implemented.  Boeing’s new astronaut capsule is outfitted with LEDs that emit “ambient sky-blue” light designed to improve astronaut moods, which could prove especially beneficial to people who will not be exposed to natural light for extended periods of time.  Back on Earth, another example is a partnership between Philips Lighting and Green Sense Farms, a Chicago-area commercial grower, to develop light recipes for indoor plants.  These recipes define specific colors of lighting for different plant types and different times of day, optimizing growing cycles and allowing Green Sense Farms to harvest more frequently.

Just as plants thrive under lights tuned to their needs, a growing body of science suggests that humans can benefit from the right mix of light colors.  The U.S. Department of Energy released a fact sheet in May discussing the science of LED light’s impact on health.  The primary conclusion is that further research will be necessary before color tuning for health can be broadly deployed.  However, it is clear that the optimal color for artificial light is dependent on factors such as the time of day, the type of activity, and the individual user.  Given recent advancements in occupancy sensors and ever developing networked lighting control systems, it’s not difficult to imagine LED lighting being constantly adjusted to meet all three of those factors.

In May, GE Lighting and startup ByteLight announced a control platform for retail store lighting that uses visible light communications to determine exactly where a customer is standing and send targeting information and advertisements to their smart phones.  A similar system could track individuals throughout an office building at the same time that specialized occupancy sensors determine the type of activity they’re involved in.  Factoring in the time of day, a smart control system could then tune the color of the lights over that individual to perfectly meet his or her current needs.  That could put complaints about light quality in the shadows.

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