Putting LEDs to spectacular use

Designers have long known the potential of LED lighting – it’s a versatile, low-cost technology that’s also energy efficient. Scott Billings sings the praises of some recent innovative projects that use the cheap microchip-controlled LEDs to spectacular e

The first performance spaces to greet visitors to Leicester’s new Curve theatre, which opened to the public last week, are housed inside a trio of 3.5m glass vestibule entranceways, each containing 288 LED spotlights. Intersecting Curve architect Rafael Viñoly’s louvered glass facade, the LED-filled cubes are precisely controlled by computer software, tracking visitors passing through them and translating their movements into a reactive performance of light and movement on the vestibule walls.

This kind of interactive lighting design is possible thanks to the programmable capabilities of LEDs and a growing convergence of lighting and display design with software coding. Although the light-emitting diode itself has been around in practical appliances for well over 40 years, there’s a new breed of designers-cum-programmers who are using increasingly cheap microchips and open-source code to create dazzling, interactive visual effects from banks of multiple LEDs.

Moritz Waldemeyer – arguably the premier exponent of LEDs’ capabilities – explains how it works. ‘You can effectively now get a whole computer on a tiny chip that costs about 50p and you can programme this chip to add intelligence to the LEDs. It is a marriage between computer technology and lighting,’ he says. Waldemeyer’s background as an electronic engineer offers him a programmer’s view on just how intricately these lights can be controlled. The throne-like By Royal Appointment chairs, designed by Waldemeyer for Gallery Libby Sellers’ Grandmateria exhibition last year, illustrate this well. Sensors in the chair read the colour of the sitter’s clothing and LEDs on the rear project this colour on to the wall behind, creating an ‘aura’ inspired by the halos found around royal figures in medieval paintings.

Not only can LEDs precisely match any colour (while incandescent bulbs generally require filters), they can also react ‘intelligently’ to information from software. The installation at Curve is designed by Jason Bruges Studio and programmed by Chris O’Shea. A wide-angle camera reads the outline shape of visitors walking through the glass boxes and then software translates this into instructions for a controller built into the LED circuits. This controller instructs the lights to dim to create a mimicking silhouette of the visitor on each wall. Further dynamism is built into the system by altering the cubes’ background colours to reflect the volume of people moving through the vestibules, as well as turning them red just before a theatre performance is about to start and green at the end to indicate the exits.

Another example of the fine control over LEDs is seen in Moving Brands’ installation promoting the launch of the Ross Lovegrove-designed Kef Muon loudspeaker last year. In collaboration with programmer-designer Karsten Schmidt and O’Shea, Moving Brands designed a pulsing LED floor which burst with light in response to the sounds emanating from the speakers. The light responses were actually plotted by the computer in three-dimensional space, of which the LED floor was effectively a two-dimensional slice. This created an effect O’Shea describes as a ‘liquid oil pool’.

Dynamic colour control is also at the heart of New York artist and designer Reed Barrow’s Monument to Amaranth installation, housed at the Tommy Hilfiger Denim store in New York. ‘The use of LEDs was really the only way to accomplish the original concept for the work,’ says Barrow. ‘I was able to assign each LED node within the tube an individual colour which mimicked a pixel on a TV. [This gave an] amazing amount of control and versatility in colour. The interface between driver software and LED hardware made the project possible and as cost effective as it could be.’

LEDs are also significantly more efficient than incandescent light bulbs, with little power lost as heat and a lifespan of 50 000 hours upwards, compared to around 1000 hours for a conventional bulb, as Barrow notes. ‘Because of the location of the work on Broadway in Soho, the piece was intended to run 24 hours a day, so the energy efficiency of LEDs was an integral part of the design.’

The other great advantage of LED technology is that it is becoming brighter and cheaper, almost exponentially. ‘With the cost, brightness and control all sorts becomes possible, including interesting architectural illumination,’ adds Waldemeyer, citing UN Studio’s LED-clad facade for the Galleria Department Store in Seoul, South Korea.

But LEDs can also produce beautiful effects without being manipulated by a computer or even changing colour, as demonstrated by Hector Serrano’s mesmerising Waterdrop installation for bathroom products group Roca. Each bulb is moved through space on a mechanical structure to create the effect of rippling water. ‘Here, interestingly, the intelligence was built into the mechanisms creating the wave movement,’ says Waldemeyer, who was partially involved in the project.

‘It was a proper old-school mechanism that could have been built with technology from the steam age. Amazing, isn’t it, that the result was so 21st century?’

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