A riot of light assaults a visitor walking into the lobby of Color Kinetics on the 17th floor of a downtown Boston office building. Swirled designs on posters change from orange to green, clear plastic shapes glow blue, purple and red in quick succession. And a question soon arises: What color is that couch? It shines cherry red, fades to crimson, turns baby blue, then begins the cycle again.
In fact, the couch is red. It’s always red, and only the light shining on it from dozens of tiny spotlights changes, as Color Kinetics demonstrates the effects possible with its digital lights. Each little lamp contains red, green and blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which light up in varying combinations under computer control. “We’re revolutionizing the lighting industry with what we consider a disruptive technology,” enthuses company president George Mueller, tall and ponytailed with the Gen-X standard goatee. “It’s a new way to create light.”
Mueller and his co-founder, Ihor Lys, have married computer software to a decade of advances in LED technology. LEDs have become ubiquitous in daily life, glowing from the faces of VCRs, clock radios and microwave ovens. But these LEDs have been humble indicator lights on all manner of electronic appliances. Once limited in brightness and stuck at the red end of the spectrum, LEDs have become more powerful in the past dozen years. And a breakthrough in the early 1990s created blue LEDs, suddenly making the whole rainbow available and holding up the promise of white-light LEDs-either by blending the output of colored LEDs or by more exotic techniques. Color Kinetics buys LEDs from device makers such as Agilent and Cree and incorporates them in lamps that give off virtually any color-changing a white wall or a store display from pale green to hot pink at a whim.
Their devices, aimed right now mostly at the retail and entertainment markets, take advantage of some of the special characteristics of LEDs: small size, light weight, low power consumption, nearly infinite selection of colors. But lighting experts say this is only the beginning. Ahead lie entire buildings that light up, traffic lights that last a decade, headlights that won’t exhaust your car battery if you leave them on and perhaps even cheap, long-lasting lamps that will drive incandescent and fluorescent bulbs to extinction.