Pioneers of Illumination
A Berkeley lab enters a new frontier in indoor lighting – OLEDs
Several labs over the decades have attempted a reinvention of the incandescent bulb. Developments like fluorescent, halogen, and LED gave us more or less the same bulb with an improvement in cost, efficiency, or product life.
“In the past, a new technology in the industry meant replacement. The idea was, you unscrew an incandescent and traded it out with an LED bulb,” says Peter Ngai, VP of Research and Development of the OLED Lighting Center in Berkeley. “In this case, we’re presenting a truly new kind of light source.”
With organic LEDs, or OLEDs, the change is no joke. The breakthrough lies in aesthetics. Thin and lightweight panels, OLEDs are as far away from bulbous as you can get.
“We’re confident about a wide-scale adoption of OLED in the long term, primarily because the light is so beautiful,” says Darren Blum, Senior Industrial Designer at OLDC.
“One focus of our group over the last three years is to bring out a human quality of the light. The OLED gives off warmth and a certain kind of clarity, making it ideal for a whole range of settings.”
New Form Factors
OLEDs have an advantage over earlier LEDs since its layers can be made much thinner – only 1-2 millimeters – and its light-emitting surface can extend much further.
Electronics labs at LG and Samsung are now using this advantage to develop a 55-inch OLED TV. New lighting products recently released by OLDC, however, offer more surprising design innovations.
“The wider surfaces open up some wonderful form factors for designers that have never been possible before,” says Blum. His team has debuted series of new designs through Winona Lighting, owned by the lab’s parent company, Acuity Brands.
The Revel model offers interlocking angled panels that zigzag across a wall or ceiling like origami folds. The Canvis is more fabric-like: a grid of panels that can hang on the wall like a painting or drape across a ceiling. In the Trallis, components form either a symmetric hexagon to illuminate a large room, or meandering curves to fit narrow corridors.
Application Efficiency – Putting Energy Where You Need It
The easily reconfigurable OLED systems stand in stark contrast to older notions of institutional lighting.
“Most people are familiar with four-foot long fluorescent tubes in panels arranged in a rigid grid. Its aim was to give uniform light through the entire floor of an office,” explains Blum. “With OLED, the fixtures are much smaller and flexibly modular, so we are able to put these discreet packets of light exactly where we want them to be.”
With these modular components, it is as simple for users to rearrange the luminaires on a ceiling, as it is to move furniture around a floor. The approach also leads to a rather significant impact in energy usage.
“Because of OLED, we were able to conceptualize what we call application efficiency measuring energy in terms of actual light needed, rather than in terms of office square footage,” he says.
Overall, a few OLED components to spotlight work surfaces plus a few smaller lights to accent traffic areas consumes less than the traditional wall-to-wall grid. “We are using less energy because we are only putting light where it is needed. Not only does it promote a much better feeling for the people working, it’s a better efficiency solution.”
The R&D output at OLEC is unique in another respect: it’s not just technology and products, but also marketing.
Ngai reports that advance interest from potential customers have been “tremendous” even months before manufacturing started on the new designs.
The pre-buzz is a somewhat unintended side effect from 3D rendering. After modeling the forms in CAD, Blum and other designers can test how it looks with different materials and finishes. They can also see how it looks with the lights on or off.
OLED uses Luxion KeyShot, a high-speed rendering application, which in addition to coloring in models with photorealistic metals and plastics; it can also fill it in with emissive (light-emitting) material. This feature simulates the luminaire’s own light rays to the rendered scene.
“During the design process we can judge how the product’s finishes catch highlights, the refraction through clear materials, and the shadows that the product would make on walls or ceilings.”
Beyond internal design review, the renderings travel through corporate structure at Acuity and speed feedback and budget approval of projects. Many of the original design images also show up on the lab’s own website, www.acuitybrandsoled.com.
Blum says that simulations of lighting scenes are especially useful for conveying the entire design vision for the modular products. “At an early stage we might get back only four physical copies of Revel. In the rendering, we can show how ten or twelve will look across a lobby, so we can do much more advance marketing of the new product with rendering than with photography.”
If one thinks of the bulb as really a sort of simulation itself – of gaslight or candle flame –then incandescents seem rather dated indeed. OLEDs feel like a more appropriate furnishing for a digital age of tablets and flatscreens.
Appearances aside, do OLEDs really stand to transplant the commonplace bulb? How do they compete in terms of price, energy use, and lifespan?
Ngai says that at this nascent stage, early adopters will have no problem paying a bit more for the cutting edge. And, like other solid-state technology, accumulating R&D and manufacturing refinements every year create exponential improvements in both performance and cost. It’s inevitable, he says, that the panels will eventually surpass the common bulb in all of these metrics.
The geometric possibilities will follow a similar curve, towards a future where luminous material can be inkjet-printed as cheaply as a color photocopies. Fabric-like OLEDs might flash messages in large banners or end up in equally flashy outfits. Speculate for a moment about its integration with other emerging trends – interactive design, global building controls, or wireless electricity – and you might come up with even more bright ideas.
Check out the science behind OLED and more images from the OLED Lighting Design Center at www.acuitybrandsoled.com.
For product specifications and ordering information, see www.winonalighting.com/products/new_products/oled
See more emissive product renderings at www.keyshot.com.