Making a better LED light

Ever since the introduction of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) I’ve been hearing, and observing myself, how the lighting experience is not what some had hoped for. The major complaints have been about light quality, that it can look dingy or harsh, depending on your perspective. Others have just complained about the fail rates.

LEDs have faced similar complaints about light quality. On a technical level, the reason for some issues with light quality have to do with color rendering, how well a light displays colors that taken together either create a bright light or soft white look. LED bulbs are typically average here.

But Martin LaMonica at profiles Xicato, a startup which has developed LEDs that have improved color rendering capabilities on par with halogen lights, the industry standard. Perhaps more important than the improved LED bulbs themselves is the broader smart lighting strategy that Xicato is working on.

Next year Xicato has plans to unveil LED modules that include lighting and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. Broader out on the horizon, the company is looking at aggregating lighting, sensors, and a microcontroller with an open API.

There are many advantages to wireless lighting, namely that there’s already a power source to feed a radio and a sensor. Additionally, retailers are eager to figure out localized ways to communicate with customers as they move about a showroom or a supermarket, perhaps beaming coupons and ads to their smartphone as well as tracking their behavior. Lighting could also adjust to enhance certain displays in a store or even to track a shopper.

The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for LEDs is estimated to be a healthy 12 percent through 2017 and is estimated to do $127 billion in revenue in 2020. (For a full report from Gigaom Research, see “The Growth and Promise of the LED Market.”) But the lighting itself represents just one potential opportunity. And producing a better bulb combined with a connected lighting strategy could help accelerate the market and provide increasing value for businesses.

What do schools and the typical open office have in common? They are creative deserts.

In general, the organization and decor of offices is managed by considerations of costs, company branding, and interior decorating trends than psychological considerations of how our surroundings influence our behavior and performance. But it appears that having a measure of control over your environment is linked to increased productivity.

Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam ran an experiment in 2010 where some office workers in London were allowed to arrange an office with plants and pictures, and others weren’t. The result was startling: those given the flexibility to tinker with their offices were up to 32 percent more productive than those in the stark and inflexible settings.

In particular, the presence of office plants or a view of natural landscapes with plants has a large impact on people’s attention when doing demanding work, and in reducing stress levels.

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source Flickr via pinkmoose

I have a problem with plants — although I would like to have one in my office — because I keep my office fairly dim, and plants need more light that I let in. The reason? Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity, as show in a recent study by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth, while turning the lights up makes people more logical, which is why I often pull up the blinds when engaged in phone calls (see Turn the light up or down to shift thinking styles). This is an argument for allowing people the ability to tweak their lighting pretty seriously, which is impossible in many offices and difficult in the rest. It seems that offices should be darker in general, and people should have controllable lighting on their desks or workspaces to amp up into logical thinking when sensible.

And the colors of our surroundings has an impact as well. It seems I should paint my office blue or green if I want to stick with the creativity side of things, since a recent study suggests that blue primes us to a more exploratory mindset, while red leads to more attention to detail. Green has been likewise linked to creativity in another study.  This is a case for companies providing a spectrum of spaces with different colors and lighting options, so that people can fine tune their surroundings to help them create or grind.

The worst version of today’s open office model — stereotypically brightly lit, with white walls, and little possibility for adjusting lighting — are absolutely the opposite of what would actually stimulate people to be more creative. Perhaps this is related to the fact that we are living in a time of great uncertainty in almost all businesses, and in times of uncertainty people have a bias against creativity and favor the traditional. Even — or especially — in the classroom, students who show the characteristics of creative people were judged least favorably by teachers, and the least creative, most favorably.

When you step back and think about, the stark, white, brightly lit open offices of today’s second way businesses are a great deal like public schools, and perhaps have included the hidden biases against creativity, as well.

Turn the light up or down to shift thinking styles

Research by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth shows that we can change our cognitive performance in very interesting ways. Want to be creative? Turn the light down:

“Darkness increases freedom from constraints, which in turn promotes creativity,” report  Anna Steidle of the University of Stuttgart and Lioba Werth of the University of Hohenheim. A dimly lit environment, they explain in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” all of which encourage innovative thinking.

There are some additional wrinkles to the research. One is that the light being dimmed needs to be one casting light downward, and not upward to the ceiling, which is too diffused to have an effect. And a second, fantastic finding: just thinking about darkness — like recalling what it feels like to be in a dark space, or relating that feeling to someone — is enough to increase people’s creativity.

In earlier research, the authors have also demonstrated the complementary effect: tuning the lights up leads to a more logical sort of reasoning (in psychological terms, an executive form of cognition). As the authors explained,

Different types of cognitive tasks call for different thinking styles: Logical reasoning
requires applying well-learned structures – typical for executive thinking, whereas creating something new requires making unusual connections and an expansion of conceptual attention – typical for legislative thinking [creative thinking].

Another argument for more programmable environments in our workplaces, or workplaces with a palette of light options: a dark library for introspective creative thought, a darkened cafe for creative coworking, a bright conference room for group decision-making, and so on.

Maybe this explains why my office is generally so dark, with the shades drawn down?

Digital Lumens shows how factories, warehouses are embracing LEDs

LED lighting is becoming popular for warehouses and factories. Not just because the lights save the building owners money, but because they are digitally networked and controlled. Startup Digital Lumen’s LED systems now cover 50 million square feet of industrial space.

Soraa raises $88M for energy saving lighting

Soraa, a three-year-old startup that uses the semiconductor gallium nitride for lighting and laser applications, has raised a round of $88.6 million, according to a filing.