MILAN -- When it comes to the future of lighting, LEDs are hot, largely for environmental reasons. It’s hard to deny the green appeal of a bulb that cuts electricity consumption by around 80 percent and that purportedly lasts 25 years, minimizing materials, manufacturing and shipping.
But a leading international group of lighting and architectural designers who gathered in Milan recently reminded us of one major hurdle: when it comes to light quality, LEDs still have a long way to go to emulate the warmth provided by the good old incandescent bulb, compared to which, they are cold.
“LED color is not enough for me,” said Yumi Kori, president of Studio MYU Architects, a Tokyo- and New York- based firm. “I can’t feel the warmness of the light source.”
Kori was one of several design experts speaking on a panel organized by Dutch electronics and lighting giant Philips, a leading vendor of LED bulbs and lamps. Philips flew in dozens of journalists -- including the writer of this blog -- to attend the discussion, which ran in conjunction with Milan’s stylish Euroluce annual lighting exhibition. While the designers praised some aspects of light emitting diodes, their message was not quite what Philips had in mind, as they pined for the incandescent bulbs that governments around the world – including the Brussels-based European Union – have banned through various phase out programs.
Gerd Pfarré, founder of Munich-based Pfarré Lighting Design noted that while LEDs in general “are pretty good," he said, “the decision of Brussels was just stupid.” Inga Sempé, a Paris-based lighting and furniture designer added, “I’m still in love with the incandescent bulb -- that’s why I keep buying some on the Internet and on eBay.”
Oliver Jene, a partner with Saarbrücken, Germany-based lighting design firm Tobias Link, noted that LEDs lack the ability to warm up as they dim, unlike incandescent bulbs, which he noted get more atmospheric as they get less bright. He suggested that the LED industry may eventually accomplish that, “but this is really something that I think we all miss.”
Leni Schwedinger, principal of New York City-based Light Projects Ltd., agreed that LED light quality is “very harsh.” Like other designers, though, she is feeding back to lighting vendors like Philips to help improve the technology. “It will get better,” Schwedinger said, noting that not only will the technology itself advance, but also people’s perceptions could change so that LED quality becomes an acceptable norm. Jene agreed, noting that people now widely accept the quality of digital music after disparaging it when it first emerged in the form of CDs over 20 years ago.
Philips claimed that its LED bulbs give off warmer light than others because it coats the diodes that emit the light with phosphor. At the exhibition, Philips showed off its LivingAmbiance control system that allows people at home to wirelessly change both the color and brightness level of LED lamps using a rounded, palm-sized touch device.
Another hurdle that the LED industry faces is price: LED bulbs in Europe can sell for around €20, a psychological consumer barrier, even if the bulbs do last 25 years (we’ll have to wait 25 years to find out if that’s actually true). Prices will have to come down if the consumer market is to take off. Like the renewable energy industry in general, the LED business will not take off at the flick of a switch.