Watch the clouds go by--on your LED office ceiling

The forecast for cloudy days at work may have just improved with a "luminous ceiling" from Fraunhofer Institute that mimics outdoor lighting inside the workplace.

Fraunhofer says initial inquiries about the new lighting have already come in, mainly for use in conference rooms. Perhaps some digital birds could add to the realism? Fraunhofer Institute

I love working at CNET. I get to write about urinal games and singing robot heads and work with smart, talented people who aren't afraid to be trapped inside iPads. I'm sure that sitting in a light-drenched office with giant windows overlooking San Francisco doesn't hurt either.

It's no secret that environmental factors like light can greatly influence mood and workplace productivity. Which is why researchers from the Stuttgart, Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute have crafted a "luminous ceiling" that simulates the lighting conditions of passing clouds. It's like working on Excel spreadsheets in the beautiful outdoors--from your dark, dank basement cubicle.

The Fraunhofer researchers collaborated with LED maker LEiDs to create a ceiling made of tiles measuring approximately 1.6 feet by 1.6 feet. Each tile comprises an LED board with 288 red, blue, green, and white light-emitting diodes that work in concert to produce the full light spectrum--millions of hues.

The boards are mounted on the ceiling, with a matte white diffuser film situated about 12 inches below the LEDs helping to illuminate the whole room.

While past assaults on fluorescent office lights have generally focused on energy efficiency (we can't speak to the energy toll of the sky ceiling yet) the Fraunhofer researchers' main aim was to simulate natural lighting conditions on cloudy days. To do so, they studied the patterns of natural light to find out how, and how fast, the light spectrum changes when clouds move across the sky.

"The LEDs allow us to simulate these dynamic changes in lighting in a way that is not directly obvious to the naked eye," said Matthias Bues, head of Fraunhofer's Institute for Industrial Engineering. "Otherwise the lighting might distract people from their work. But it does need to fluctuate enough to promote concentration and heighten alertness."

In a small study, 10 volunteers worked under the cloud ceiling, whose light shifted from static to rapidly fluctuating over the course of four days. It won't be a surprise to anyone who toils under fluorescent lights all day to hear that the majority preferred the natural effect of the dynamic lighting.

Right now, the virtual sky costs approximately 1,000 euros ($1,293) per square meter, but the makers expect prices to fall as more units are produced.

Fraunhofer will exhibit a 9-by-9-foot prototype of its virtual sky at the CeBit consumer electrics fair in Hannover, Germany, in March. Hopefully, for full effect, it will be a cloudy month.

Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF