How LEDs Are Transforming The World

Just before Christmas, I took my kids to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for an exhibition called “Lightscape.” Neon lights electrified trees and made the gardens glow. In one large field, hundreds of illuminated orbs pulsed, making it seem as if a gentle tide were flowing in and out; arbors became like candlelit cathedrals.

“Lightscape” is one of many such exhibitions in New York of late. There’s the wonderful “Invisible Worlds” interactive at the Natural History Museum, installations featuring the art of Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky at the Hall des Lumières, a garden night walk called “Astra Lumina” in Queens, even a multisensory experience at the, cough, House of Cannabis. The phenomenon is not limited to major cities with big museums, either. I went to a pretty cool light show in Naples, Florida.

A lot has been written about immersive spaces as flourishing commercial and cultural products, sometimes transformative and sometimes cheesy ones. The experiential-art boom is a result of artists and museums appealing to younger audiences, different audiences, tech money. It comes from designers satisfying the Millennial demand for experiences. It is driven by the profitability of Instagram tableaux: monochromatic ball pits, ice-cream sundaes on fire, perfect wee pubs, and, yes, rooms filled with glowing lights. The rise of legal weed and the increasing normalization of psychedelics seem like they might be factors too. But there’s a simpler, more straightforward explanation that somehow, despite its blaring glare, has gone overlooked. That is the radical improvement in and plummeting cost of LEDs.

Virtually nothing has gotten better and cheaper faster over the past 30 years than LEDs. From 2010 to 2019 alone, LEDs went from accounting for 1 percent of the global lighting market to nearly 50 percent, while their cost has declined “exponentially,” as much as 44 percent a year, one government report found. And as LEDs have improved, so, too, have any number of technologies reliant on or related to them: tablets, at-home-hair-removal devices, televisions, smartphones, light-up toys, cameras.

LEDs have also transformed cultural events involving creative lighting. They’re why stadium shows and EDM festivals look so freaking awesome, to fangirl for a minute, and why even many just-getting-started bands have pretty neat light displays. They’re why so many parks and zoos are lit up like Burning Man at night. They’re an integral element of today’s underground-dance-party revival, and why our cities are all of a sudden studded with rave caves.

LED technology is an old one: Scientists invented light-emitting diodes in the early 20th century. But “the big-bang moment” came only in the 1990s, Morgan Pattison, an engineer and materials scientist, explained to me. Three physicists—Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Shuji Nakamura of the United States and Japan—invented blue LEDs. With that scientific advance, manufacturers were able to create LEDs emitting white light and the full rainbow of visible colors, something they had not been able to do before. (The three scientists shared a 2014 Nobel Prize for their discovery.)

LED lights have many advantages. For one, they are hyperefficient. Incandescent bulbs contain a filament that radiates when it gets hot; most of the energy they draw gets wasted as heat rather than used as light. (In a standard 75-watt bulb, the filament might heat up to 4,500 degrees.) LEDs, in contrast, consist of semiconductor materials that emit light when energy passes through them; they generate little heat and waste little energy, using one-tenth the energy of incandescents or less. LEDs last several times longer too, because there are no filaments to burn out. As a result, they’re more expensive up front but cheaper in the long term.

LED lights are also much more flexible than their incandescent predecessors. You can command a single LED bulb to get dimmer or brighter with no need for a dimmer switch; you can tell it to glow pink or orange or to cycle through a sunset of colors. “The manufacturers have just nailed that super fast,” Pattison told me. “We have all these tunable lights. The bigger issue is, at the end of the day, what do people do with them?” At home, he told me, he barely dims his lights: “I don’t go around changing the colors all the time.” But artists and lighting designers do. And LEDs have revolutionized their work.

The programmability of these lights is the main characteristic that distinguishes them from incandescents before them: You could point a spotlight around and put filters on top of it, but you couldn’t do anything like what LEDs do, at least not easily. Anthony Rowe and Liam Birtles are members of the British collective Squidsoup, whose 2013 work Submergence is one of the most famous (and most copied) immersive digital artworks. The idea, Rowe told me, was to “explode” a screen, allowing a viewer to float among its pixels. In their new collaboration with the electronic musician Four Tet, hundreds of people dance while heaven-lit by thousands of suspended LED lights that somehow seem to be both a synesthetic representation of the music and capable of bouncing along with the crowd.

LEDs can also be programmed to respond to the people viewing them. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, for instance, suspended lights darkened and brightened as you walked under them. J. T. Rooney of Silent Partners Studio, which has designed for Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Doja Cat, told me about creating touch-sensitive LED floors that generate trails of fire or water behind people as they walk, and responsive LED screens that mirror a person’s movements back at them.

It’s not just the LEDs, many designers and artists told me. Lasers and projectors have gotten a lot better and cheaper. The software has improved dramatically, so much so that a person with a laptop can do in an afternoon what a motion-picture studio might have taken years to do two decades ago. “Emerging technologies—whether it be LED walls or panels, microcontroller development boards, components like sensors and cameras” are constantly progressing, Kevin Colorado of Artechouse, which runs immersive spaces in New York, Miami, and D.C., told me. “We get to build our own dreams in hardware, and breathe life into them” with software.

That has led to the creation of new spaces such as Artechouse’s. Last month, I went to its installation in the basement of Chelsea Market. A dozen or so people sat in a cavernous room, enveloped by a set of hyperreal, color-saturated videos—endless tubes, glowing trains, galaxies floating within orbs, sacred geometry—while listening to ambient music. It was a bit like being inside a Thomas Kinkade painting, I thought, if Kinkade really liked magic mushrooms.

If you don’t want to leave the warm glow of your ordinary LEDs at home, you can still see how far we’ve come by checking out this video of Madonna performing “Like a Prayer” on her Re-Invention World Tour, in 2004. Then check her out performing the same song on the Celebration Tour last year. Ignore, if you can, the shirtless go-go dancers wearing gimp masks, and focus on the lights: The rigged screens are huge! The lighting pattern is so complicated! Everything is so bright! Or, if you prefer, check out Beyoncé dazzling a decade ago, then take a look at what she brought on tour last summer. She goes from commanding a stage to commanding a moonbase.

Indeed, everywhere feels like it is lit like a moonbase these days. The orbs and lanterns in my kids’ bedroom make it look like Shibuya Crossing on Halloween. You might walk through a neon-lit immersive space in a mall or an airport, scarcely noticing it but for the bright lights. You might pay $54.99 to imagine yourself part of a Van Gogh painting—whether the artist wanted you to be part of his painting or not—while zonked out on an edible on a Tinder date.

The LEDs of the future may be able to do much more, Pattison told me, from powering vertical farms to improving surgical outcomes. “It’s the same level of technology jump as going from gas lights to incandescent,” he said. Artists need time to catch up too, Birtles told me: “Art leads technology, and technology leads art … The light-art world is slightly struggling to keep up with the technology and come up with ideas that really work.” He likened it to the advent of film: “The first cameras emerged, and people went and filmed things like trains coming out of a station. Gradually, this filmic language developed.” What new languages will we create with light?

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