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Wed 1 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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Shooting stars

Seven leading lighting experts discuss the relative merits of LED, a technology in the spotlight.

While some designers herald the development of LED technology as the biggest revolution to sweep the lighting industry, others argue the current hype is little more than propaganda generated by LED manufacturers to mask the technology's technical deficiencies and lack of real-world applications. Here, seven leading lighting experts discuss the relative merits of a technology in the spotlight.

You say you want a revolution

Patrick Woodroffe, stage and event lighting designer

LED technology is going to change the world.

Acclaimed British stage lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe is a staunch advocate of the energy saving benefits of LED lighting, and has emerged as one of the industry's leading innovators, applying the technology to massive stage productions such as the recent Live Earth concert series and current world tours by Genesis and The Police.

The development of new lighting technologies such as LEDs has had a major impact on the way I work. But the secret to success is to not be solely driven by the technology or create a spectacle for its own sake.

The key ingredient for me from a technical perspective is the input of the lighting programmer, and the programmers I typically work with are real artists in their own right.

I recently presented a paper at the Light Middle East conference in Dubai which focused on environmental responsibility and lighting design. Most recently, I was involved in developing the lighting design for the Live Earth concert series, which was one of the first carbon-neutral concert events ever staged. LED technology played a key role in achieving this.

I honestly believe that LED technology is going to change the world and it's going to have an equally profound effect on all aspects of lighting design. In five to 10 years it is quite possible that every light in use worldwide will be LED-based, which would be huge in terms of achieving energy savings.

However, the overall development of LED-based fixtures is still in its relative infancy, and it will be some time before we can apply the technology to certain aspects of stage lighting, for example.

You can use LEDs in most architectural lighting schemes but it's very difficult to adapt the technology to a stage environment, because LEDs don't throw a beam of light, which is hugely important to what we do. But certainly in terms of lighting backdrops and scenery, LEDs are among the best fixtures currently available.

Don't believe the hype

Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major, architectural lighting designers, Speirs and Major Associates

World-renowned designers Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major have been responsible for some of the world's best-known architectural lighting installations, including Dubai's Burj Al Arab and London's Millennium Dome (now O2 Arena). Despite utilising LED arrays at each of these sites, the designers remain unconvinced by claims the technology is revolutionising the lighting design industry.

Mark Major:There's a lot of hype surrounding LEDs at the moment. We view the technology as just another tool at our disposal. Much of this hype can be attributed to the marketing prowess of the major LED manufacturers.
Market trends have also shifted dramatically in recent years. In the past, the industry was divided fairly equally into companies that manufactured lamps and those that specialised in fittings.

The line separating these groups has increasingly blurred in recent years, with little regard for what impact this has on end-users. While LEDs theoretically have a very long lifespan, our own experience suggests this largely depends on manufacturing standards and their ability to cope with a variety of environmental conditions.

Many companies are marketing LED technology with no view to the future. These attitudes will do the lighting industry damage. – Mark Major

LEDs are almost being treated as consumer durables, in terms of their general usability. That's something we're not used to in architectural lighting design - we just don't throw things away!

Many companies are marketing this technology with no view to the future. These attitudes will do the lighting industry damage.

Great strides have been taken in conventional lamp technology, including the development of 20w CDM and CDMR lamps, but this isn't generating the same buzz as LEDs are at present.

I just think it's crazy when I hear people claim that all lighting will be LED-based within the next decade. Most of the major lighting manufacturers, including Philips, are investing a fortune in conventional lamp technology, and there's no way they'd be doing that if they thought there would be no market for these products.

Prospective clients need to be made fully aware of the issues rather than being caught up in the hype surrounding LED lighting technology.

Jonathan Speirs:
Mark makes a really significant point, particularly in regards to large-scale LED lighting installations. If one LED unit breaks, you can't replace it individually, because an LED product's lifecycle is so short it is often superseded within 12 months. To replace an entire array represents a hugely expensive exercise.

One of the first significant lighting projects we were contracted to in the Middle East was Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Hotel in 1998. LED lighting played a key role in the design, which was quite a revolutionary approach at that point.

But in the proceeding time, we've come to learn a lot more about the technology. I guess it's like anything; a manufacturer's goal is to sell its product and if they say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, a lot of people will believe that.

Innovation is key

Beau McClellan - lighting designer

Specialising in architectural lighting design and innovative one-off LED-based fixtures, enigmatic Scotsman Beau McClellan is creating a name for himself as one of the leading proponents of LED lighting technology.

A deft hand is really the key to unlocking the potential of LED lighting technology. Less is most definitely more, particularly when using RGB LEDs, which I've always found quite tacky to be honest.

My aim is to work with technologies as they come to market, taking a more organic approach to developing new applications and innovative designs.
I'm an unabashed fan of LED technology, not just because of its potential applications in terms of lighting design, but also because of its hugely impressive energy saving characteristics.

The lighting design community has a very important role to play in terms of promoting energy conservation initiatives, and LED technology is the greatest tool we currently have at our disposal for achieving this.

The other advantage LEDs hold over rival lighting technologies is that they have a longer lifespan than traditional tungsten or halogen lamps.

The biggest challenge facing wholesale LED implementation in the Middle East relates to the extreme temperatures that impact the region, which tend to shorten the lifespan of LED arrays. – Andre Yew.

The big challenge for LED manufacturers now is to develop a fixture that produces a pure white light similar to a tungsten. This will open up a whole range of new applications particularly in the field of theatre and stage lighting design. The Middle East is a veritable candy store for lighting designers at the moment in terms of the commercial opportunities available.

The Burj Dubai will be absolutely iconic in terms of its lighting design. I would love to get involved in that project.

If I had the opportunity I would light the entire building with LEDs to make a grand statement. It's the tallest building in the world and with the extensive use of LEDs it would also be the world's most efficiently lit building. The result could be absolutely stunning.

A reality check

Christine Michelangeli and Andre Yew, lighting designers, Delta Lighting Solutions, Dubai

Based in Dubai, Christine Michelangeli and Andre Yew appreciate the significant impact extreme climatic conditions can have on architectural lighting technologies.

Christine Michelangeli:There is a certain level of ignorance among some of the clients we deal with in this region in respect to LED technology. A number of LED manufacturers are taking advantage of this situation and selling their technology to them even before we have the chance to survey the requirements of a particular architectural lighting project.

Andre Yew:
RGB LEDs have had a huge impact on the architectural lighting sector and it's not necessarily been one for the better. The manufacturers are playing a huge role in shaping trends.

It would be hugely beneficial for some clients to come to understand the nature of the technology rather than just falling for the hype. You show them RGB LEDs and they love them even if they're not appropriate to the overall design of a project.

The biggest challenge facing wholesale LED implementation in the Middle East relates to the extreme temperatures that impact the region, which tend to shorten the lifespan of LED arrays. It means we have to use the technology sparingly in its current guise and be mindful of its potential fragility in such environments.
LED Technology bridging the gap

Tom Davis, AV designer Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) associate

Specialist AV design consultant Tom Davis has been involved in some of the world's best known theatre projects, including the redevelopment of the London Coliseum and Abu Dhabi's landmark Emirates Palace auditorium.

There is a huge amount of money being invested in LED research and development, particularly in the architectural lighting sector.

LED technology is bridging the gap between the stage and architectural lighting sectors.

The technology is also being adopted by the stage and theatre lighting industries, which is leading to the development of new fixtures such as LED washes designed primarily to light stage backdrops.

These developments are enabling designers to approach stage lighting from new perspectives. I've seen some very beautiful effects created applying LED technology to things like cycloramas, which would be very difficult to achieve using more traditional lighting technologies.

However, my belief is that LED technology is secondary to IT-based networking applications in terms of its overall impact on stage and architectural lighting design.

Ethernet technologies have really moved the game on for architectural lighting designers, particularly in the Middle East, where there are major lighting installations at landmark sites including the Burj Al Arab and soon the Burj Dubai.

Using a master controller, you can control a multitude of effects in conjunction with LED lighting arrays. Network technologies are blurring the line between architectural lighting and stage and performance lighting applications.

Stealing the limelightThe rapid development of LED display technology is sparking fierce competition between stage designers working on some of the biggest concert tours. From Radiohead to The Police, artists are in turn embracing the technology in a bid to up the ante on their counterparts and provide punters with a veritable visual feast as compensation for the often lofty price of admission to their stadium shows.

Ageing rockers Genesis are the latest in a line of reformed acts to return to the limelight with cutting-edge AV technology in tow. Legendary stage designer Mark Fisher created a nine million pixel LED surface (the largest ever constructed) as a stage backdrop for the band's current Turn it On Again world tour. The stunning stage set utilises more than 15,000 Barco 510 O-Lite panels with 270 control boxes, plus 102 panels of Mitsubishi 16:8 high resolution panels.

The O-lite makes up a spectacular 13 metre-high 55 metre-wide set backdrop and is surrounded by seven lighting towers reaching heights of up to 28 metres, which together resemble a giant conch shell.

The screen provides an elegant 3D curved wall and an architectural backdrop immediately behind the performance space. It is an interactive canvass for video playback, graphic images and IMAG content, integrated with impressive lighting effects developed by Patrick Woodroffe.

The O-lite screen is by far the most complicated that's ever been created in terms of engineering and processing, according to Stufish's project executive designer Jeremy Lloyd.

Playback material, including visual graphics and animations produced by Sam Pattinson from Onedotzero, is stored on four GV Profile hard drives. The material is broadcast live by playback director Bryan Myles using Barco's Events Manager, which drives the Barco Encore system and manages the show's overall video control.

Involving five steel crews and two advanced systems, 90 trucks and more than 250 production technicians, the Turn it On Again tour continues on in the US for the remainder of 2007.