Navigant Research Blog

Lighting Colors Evolve for Human Needs

— 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.


The Battle for Control of Lighting Controls

— July 18, 2013

With the rise of LED lighting and inexpensive controls technologies, the market for networked lighting controls is expected to increase sharply in the coming years.  Three types of companies are maneuvering to take advantage of this opportunity: pure-play lighting controls companies, big lamp industry players, and traditional building controls vendors.  Each group has its advantages, and it’s far from clear which will end up leading the lighting controls market in the future.

Pure Plays

As  with other new technologies, the path has been broken by small, dedicated companies that have developed innovative techniques and demonstrated the value of those techniques in the marketplace.  Companies like Daintree Networks and Redwood Systems have shown that networked lighting controls can save money and provide a valuable service to building managers.

Big Lamp Industry Players

The rise of LED lighting brings an opportunity but also a threat to the large, traditional lamp companies.  The long lifespan of LED lamps will eventually curtail the market for replacement lamps, leading to declining overall revenue from lamp sales.  In response, the big lamp companies are expanding their offerings to include lighting controls and networked systems.  Philips, Osram, and GE have all begun selling the software and controls products needed to centrally manage commercial lighting systems.

Building Controls Vendors

While the networking of lighting controls is a relatively recent development, the networking of HVAC and other building controls has become almost routine.  Some of the key players involved in building controls have begun broadening their businesses to include lighting controls.  Honeywell, for example, has begun selling its own lighting controls software in Europe and has plans to bring it to the United States.  Schneider Electric has also made acquisitions to allow the integration of networked lighting controls with its building management systems.

Building controls companies have the advantage of existing relationships with the applicable customer base.  Their customers trust them to provide systems that already control other systems within buildings.  Adding lighting controls to HVAC controls seems like a logical step.  The big lamp companies also benefit from existing relationships – and it is their products that customers are seeking to network together.  It would be logical for a customer to assume that the company who sold them their lights and sensors would be best suited to sell them the networking controls and software as well.

Between the building controls companies and the big lamp companies, it might seem that the smaller pure plays could be squeezed out of existence.  However, these startups were the first players to come to this table and have made significant inroads, so they shouldn’t be counted out.  With the greater adoption of open standards that allow interoperability between the equipment of multiple vendors, it may well be advantageous for customers to employ a third party for their top-level controls that will not lock them in to a specific vendor for lamps and peripherals and that will continue to push the envelope on innovative controls techniques.

A soon-to-be released update to Navigant Research’s 2012 report, Intelligent Lighting Controls for Commercial Buildings, will discuss these trends and provide profiles for many of the vendors in the lighting controls market.


LED Revolution Rises in the West

— March 17, 2013

The market for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) has reached the turning point from “promising technology” to “practical mainstream solution.”  The replacement of 125-plus years of vacuum tube lighting by LEDs seems as inevitable as the transition from TV tubes to flat screen LED monitors, though it won’t happen nearly as quickly.  But even as we witness this shift, I wonder if we really perceive the revolution taking place.

That revolution was evident at last month’s Strategies in Light conference, in Santa Clara, which focused on LED  technologies and, more specifically, LEDs applied to lighting applications.  Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the visible LED, the program included an awards ceremony honoring industry pioneers Nick Holonyak Jr., M. George Craford, Roland Haitz, and Shuji Nakamura.  It was a rare window into history.

The conference also demonstrated that LED lighting R&D activity is overwhelmingly focused on achieving some degree of parity with conventional lighting in terms of light quality and cost, while still delivering on the energy efficiency and long life-cycle potential of LEDs.  Just as anyone seeking “plain white paint” is confronted by thousands of options at their neighborhood paint shop, “white light” is far from a neutral, standard attribute for lighting.  How a given light source’s color temperature maps against the standard Planck curve is just the beginning of a light quality assessment.  The facts are that LED lighting can be made very efficient, have good light quality, last a very long time, and be cost-effective.  But it’s exceedingly rare that all four of these goals are met simultaneously in a given application. Hence there’s much work to be done, justifying the focus on achieving parity and conventional lamp replacement.

Beyond Tubes

Beyond the focus on parity and replacement, however, are opportunities that are potentially much more transformative. Although the transistor radios of my youth seemed a major innovation compared with the vacuum-tube radios of a decade earlier, the real power of transistors came in the form of integrated circuits that unleashed a much larger information and communications revolution.  In a presentation titled “The Next Evolution of Lighting,” Brad Koerner, director of experience design at Philips Lighting, showed how LEDs are ushering in a new paradigm for lighting design, controllability, and occupant experience.  LED lighting form factors that mimic fluorescent tubes might make sense for today’s lamp replacement market, but they’ll probably look silly in retrospect when lighting is integrated into the very surfaces of next-generation buildings.  Today’s lighting programmability essentially means on, off, or dim – but what happens when lighting color temperature is also programmable, allowing sunlight’s subtle differences by time of day, season, or geographic location to be carried indoors to our work and living spaces?

We are only at the cusp of these revolutions today.  In the meantime, all those concerned with smart buildings, from architects to facility managers, should balance their healthy skepticism with a dreamer’s wonder at what may soon be.


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