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How OLED lighting aims to be the star of the glow (Q&A)

As costs drop for the easy-on-the-eyes, next-gen tech, Acuity Brands pushes a new range of lighting products. This week, it'll announce the Nomi.

Acuity Brands has embraced lights made from OLED panels.
Acuity Brands has embraced lights made from OLED panels. Acuity Brands

Get ready for another wave of change to sweep through the lighting business.

The last decade has seen dramatic shifts in an industry that had looked the same for the better part of a century. The long reign of incandescent bulbs and long, thin fluorescent tubes was challenged first by energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs coiled into a regular light bulb shape. Then came LEDs (light-emitting diodes), devices taken from the electronics industry that added unusual shapes and colors as well as better efficiency.

And now the next technology is coming: OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting. It replaces the small, bright dots of LEDs with sheets of light that aren't so piercingly bright. That means they can illuminate subjects directly without reflectors, diffusers, and other apparatus needed to spread light and protect eyes from glare.

Acuity Brands, whose $2 billion in annual sales make it the largest lighting company in North America, believes it's time to start pushing OLED lighting for its businesses in commercial and residential interiors. Acuity sells products under names including Lithonia and Winona.

OLED lighting is a premium product for now, but Acuity is expecting costs to drop dramatically over the coming years. Cost is the biggest barrier today to OLED adoption, Acuity believes, with prices comparable to LED products ranging from $120 for a simple wall sconce to more than $1,000 for more elaborate chandeliers.

If you haven't heard of OLED lighting today, you likely will soon. Analyst firm IDTechEx believes OLED lighting revenue will grow 40 percent to 50 percent each year to 1.3 billion in 2023. Among those building OLED lighting panels are Konica Minolta, Philips, DuPont, and Acuity's current supplier, LG Chem.

Even before the costs come down, though, Acuity believes there are ways to bring the technology to market. That's why later this week it'll be announcing the Nomi, a slim vertical wall sconce light fixture built around a 50x250mm OLED panel, with a curved model to join the first straight model. Acuity will show it off at the Lightfair International show in Las Vegas in June.

Pete Shannin, general manager of Acuity's OLED group
Pete Shannin, general manager of Acuity's OLED group Acuity Brands

Pete Shannin, general manager of Acuity's OLED group, and Jeannine Wang, the group's director of business development and marketing, discussed the plans with CNET's Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript.

Stephen Shankland: OLED today is something exotic. How big will OLED be as it matures?
Pete Shannin: The lighting market in North America is about $12 billion today. [Research firm] Nanomarkets expects the OLED market to be $1.4 billion globally by the end of 2020. You're talking large amounts of dollars in terms of opportunity. But rather than get hung up on the exact forecast of OLED, we look at the value proposition OLED offers. What we're seeing for OLED isn't available in other lighting technologies.

It has a very thin form factor for lighting. It's a very approachable light, which allows for the light to be used interactively. It's glare-free. You don't have the bright pixelation you have with LED. It can be bendable and eventually flexible, which will open up other opportunities. With traditional light sources, you had to design luminaries around the light source to shade and cover up the light source. With OLED, the OLED is a prominent piece of the design. It allows a lot of creativity with what you can do with it.

So a lot of what we think of as a light fixture is actually a necessary evil -- extra hardware to compensate for unpleasantly bright light sources.
Jeannine Wang: The OLED is intrinsically a diffuse source that doesn't require shades to diffuse it or additional optics to control or redirect it. That's an aspect that leads to a very highly efficient and very usable light source in an incredible array of lighting applications.

But that also means it's not backward-compatible with all the light fixtures in today's housings and buildings. Compact fluorescent bulbs and LED bulbs screw into regular sockets. Do I need to remodel my house to use OLED lighting?
Shannin: It's more than likely we're not going to see a lot of backward compatibility, where somebody takes an OLED panel and screw it into an A19 socket. The value proposition doesn't really lead to that. It's very similar to other transformational technologies. Can I retrofit my Motorola with this iPhone interface? No. At end of day you wanted a new phone. With trying to retrofit, you essentially lose a lot of the value you'd get out of it.

Wang: I'm not sure it means remodeling the house, but it does mean the new OLED table lamp would be a very different form.

Shannin: Lighting is pretty easy to switch out. We'll put out a portfolio of luminaries [light fixtures] that would have styling we think that would be very desirable -- table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers. We're looking at office buildings, hospitality areas of hotels, bars, lounges, health care facilities, and residential.

How much does OLED lighting cost compared to the ho-hum traditional lighting products we've all seen for years?
Shannin: We're very excited about the four products we brought to market -- the Revel, Kindred, Trilia, and Canvis. They'll be used commercial settings, but some will be available for residential as well. There is a price premium relative to traditional technology. You'll see it more compared to LED technology.

We're able to bring out luminaries that are price-approachable now. At Lightfair, we'll show a family we're calling Nomi. It's a beautiful stylistic product that shows the value of OLED, and the price premium shouldn't be more than what it is using LED technology. We're demonstrating that OLED isn't necessarily expensive on its own. You're going to see more and more OLED products at a variety of price points accessible to many applications.

Acuity Brands' Nomi shines light directly on rooms in one configuration and also reflected off the wall in another.
Acuity Brands' Nomi shines light directly on rooms in one configuration and also reflected off the wall in another. Acuity Brands

What's the Nomi look like?
Shannin: It's a very thin-form sconce you could use for corporate interiors and for residential applications. It uses the 50x200mm panel -- both rigid and bendable in products called the Nomi Straight and Nomi Curve. It'll come in lighting temperatures of 3000, 3500, and 4000 Kelvin [a measure of color temperature, where a lower number corresponds to a more orangey light similar to traditional incandescent bulbs]. It should have a very approachable price.

OLED panels today are pretty small, but is there a future where an entire wall is a big sheet of illuminated panel? What are the size limits?That is a possibility for the future. Today the sizes are getting larger, but today the largest commercially viable OLED is from LG Chem, at 320x320mm [a little over one foot square].

Where will it go in the next three to five years?Wang: It's more an emphasis on improving performance: lumens [light output] per watt, lifetime, and color.

Shannin: They're making investments now in equipment that will allow for better yield and better sizes. Today, we are using LG Chem panels. Our four products' panels are 100x100mm. The Nomi products we'll show at Lightfair are bar-shaped panels measuring 50x200mm. We are going to use also their bendable panel. We're evaluating design concepts using other panels. LG Chem has a round panel about 110x110m and a larger 110x320mm panel.

Jeannine Wang, director of marketing for Acuity Brands' OLED group
Jeannine Wang, director of marketing for Acuity Brands' OLED group Acuity Brands

What's the lifespan of an OLED panel?
Shannin: That's continuing to change. In this next generation we just released, the rated lifetime at L70 [the length of time it takes for a lighting device to degrade to 70 percent of its brightness when brand new] is 30,000 to 40,000 hours [3.4 to 4.5 years] But a year ago it was 15,000 to 18,000 hours [1.7 to 2 years]. We don't see lifetime being an impediment anymore for OLED tech. The biggest roadblock you're seeing with OLED is probably price.

Wang: In a lot of applications, like Nomi installations, you'd be operating in dimmed mode, so the lifetime is quite long -- up to 72,000 hours at a brightness of 2,000 candelas per meter squared.

We're all used to the computing-industry improvements as manufacturing gets better -- faster processors, cheaper PCs, better broadband. How much will OLED price go down as volume goes up?
Shannin: We expect the cost to come down on actual panels to come down tenfold by the end of the decade. We've seen a large movement in costs, which has allowed us to accelerate our commercial movement in OLED.

How does the energy efficiency compare to incandescent, compact fluorescent, or LED bulbs?
Wang: Today OLED panels are 55 to 60 lumens per watt. There are panels at 80 lumens per watt if you compromise in color quality. But one consideration in overall efficiency is losses through optics or redirection. That boosts OLED's overall lighting efficiency compared to diffused lighting applications [like incandescent, LED, and fluorescent lights]. You also can bring the light closer to the end user.

You can design an OLED lighting system in a space that is comparable in terms of overall lighting efficiency with incumbent systems today. Say you had a very tall ceiling and needed to focus light across a long distance. There, your best source is going to be an LED. It's a point source, and you put optics around it to punch light down into the space. But if you're looking to provide soft general illumination, you'd have to do a lot of optical gymnastics to an LED to accomplish the same thing. In energy usage, the OLED would come out comparable.

And what about compared to compact fluorescent bulbs, which so many people bought because they use less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs?
Shannin: CFL efficiencies are not particularly high. They're going to be in the 70- to 80-lumen-per-watt range.

At the Light and Building Show, LG Chem showed OLED panels at 100 lumens per watt with good color quality. They'll bring those into to market next year. Based on our estimates, OLED -- especially where you don't have optical losses -- will rival LED in a very short time in terms of delivered light out.

LG Chem expects significant improvements in OLED brightness (left) and lifespan (right) through 2016.
LG Chem expects significant improvements in OLED brightness (left) and lifespan (right) through 2016. LG Chem

How hard is it to install OLED lighting compared to traditional lighting? When I see a scattering of Revel OLED lights across a ceiling and wall, it looks costly to me.
Shannin: There's nothing unique that'll make it more complicated. Contractors will really enjoy how light it is. What makes it more complicated to install is complexity of the light fixture. Putting a Revel in the wall wouldn't be any different than putting a sconce on the wall.

It can be tough getting inspectors to sign off on new electrical work. Are there any challenges there with introducing new technology?
Shannin: All these products go through certification testing like UL and ETL. There wouldn't be any issues there.

One selling point of LEDs is that they can change color for different effects and moods. What can you do with color OLED lighting?
Shannin: Today the products are white. Konica Minolta is showing dynamic OLED panel that could change color. All that is going to be a possibility for commercial products. The Konica Minolta product was also flexible, built on a bendable polymer substrate.

Today lighting control is moving beyond the wall switch. What's coming with communication technology like smartphone apps to control lighting?
Shannin: To me that's the most exciting thing that we're going to see. At Acuity Brands we talk about this. We've organized our business to accelerate bringing products from dumb terminals to smart integrated products that can communicate with each other. PDA [personal digital assistant] control, gesture control, some kind of contact control. We're looking at all those things.

OLED will do that as well. Since it's glare-free and is a soft illumination source, it allows you to bring it very close to the user. That lends itself to smart technology like automation and personalization.

We'll also show at Lightfair our Lumen Being, which shows the interaction of light with control. We as humans like to connect with things. This will allow person to connect and the light to be close to them and have personal control.

Will we reach a point where new houses aren't built with wall switches anymore?
With gestural control, like in the movie "Minority Report," what we're seeing in lighting is the technology is still very new to the users. Most folks just don't get it. It's not as intuitive. To get gestural control to be used more in lighting, you're going to need somebody like Apple or Samsung to use gestural control in their devices, then users will become more comfortable with it. Just wave on and wave off is OK, but to do something more complicated may require voice control or something else.

But building all that electronics into lighting makes it more expensive. You have to buy more components and get products certified by the FCC.
Shannin: The cost of radios and chips is coming down. And people will pay for cool experiences. The iPhone is a heck of a lot more expensive than a regular phone. That's what we're pushing -- to give really cool experiences with lighting.

Just don't make me get a new proprietary remote controls, please.
Shannin: Oh, I know. I think that's pretty loud and clear.

Updated at 10:35 p.m. to correct a point about color temperature. A lower Kelvin measurement corresponds to a more orange color.