The Future of Commercial Lighting

A Look Back

What did the inventors of the florescent light say in the mid-1930s’s when they installed their first system?  Did they think it was awesome?  Did they imagine nearly four generations would use it as their primary space illumination source?  Would they be horrified?  I hope so.  In my work on commercial buildings, I’ve never heard anyone say good things about florescent lighting.  Are there nice class A buildings illuminated with florescent lamps?  Sure.  But there are far too many examples of poorly maintained buildings where the lighting is terrible.  For a comical review of the quintessential soul sucking office lit with florescent lamps, check out the opening footage from the 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnLDMqPBeKQ

A Look at the Present:  It’s About Software

The near term future of commercial lighting is about software.

By converging lights on a Power over Ethernet infrastructure, it’s possible to control lights like any other IT appliance.  To software development engineers, PoE+LED commercial lighting presents a tremendous canvas on which to paint.  Creative software engineers think about new ways to control device behavior. The transition from florescent lights is not a simple lamp change.  It marks a shift to digital lighting.  This change will be similar to the transition from analog phones to Voice of IP.  This change will share traits with the transition from film based photography to digital imaging.  I can’t predict all of the great innovations that will result but I certainly have a long list.  Bringing RGB color to a white light world is near the top of the list.

The Future of White Light is Color

Color tunable lighting is the future of white light.  Several years ago I was involved in a project at a school district.  The district wanted to install color tunable lights in order to improve student performance.  Several industry studies have suggested that color tunable lights could have a positive impact on performance.

A significant volume of research suggests that certain colors of blue disrupt human circadian rhythm.  Circadian rhythm regulates our body clock.  At dawn the sun emits a warm, yellow/red light.  This is mimicked with 2700 Kelvin (a very warm light).  By midday, the sun may reach 5500 Kelvin (a very blue light).  The day ends with the sun becoming warm (2700 Kelvin).

A number of researchers have uncovered a connection between exposure to blue light and performance.  Suppose you are attending a conference in a hotel lit with lots of high Kelvin lights (5000+).  The results suggest that long exposure to blue light disrupts the circadian rhythm by making the body think its midday when in fact it’s time to unwind and relax.  This reset to midday interferes with sleep patterns.  A poor night of sleep negatively impacts focus and performance.

When the school board members saw the tunable lights in action, they recognized the value of an automated day-time playlist and how it could be used to tune student performance.  After you see a tunable white light system I’m sure you’ll agree—fixed color temperature lights are a thing of the past.

(for this post I haven’t had time to survey the clinical research—I’ll save that for another day.)

The Future of Light Fixtures

With LEDs, light fixtures don’t have to be 2×4 feet.  LEDs come in strips, plastic tape, rigid PC boards etc.  Light fixtures can come in any shape or size.

A ceiling grid with evenly spaced troffers is a good simple way to ensure appropriate light levels are evenly spread in an office.  Accent lights are used to augment the general illumination.  Cans, sconces and wall-packs help light areas not easily covered by large troffers.

Are architects and lighting designers satisfied with the selection of 2×2 flat panel lights?  Usually not.  Most dress up a space with table lamps, chandeliers and other decorative lighting.

When LEDs, OLEDs and other advanced light emitting materials are combined with low voltage power and controls, expect to be surprised by light fixture innovation.  Some of the best technology innovation happens in the most unlikely places.