MindBullets 20 Years


San Diego shopping center shows the way to the future

The incandescent light bulb is 135 years old this year, and officially dead!

The death knell was announced at the annual congress of the International Council of Shopping Centers. The venue at San Diego’s new Convention Center and Mall is different in that there is not a single light bulb, fluorescent tube or low-voltage light to be seen.

Instead, the walls and ceilings emit a ubiquitous white glow. At times, images flash across the walls and you realize that all these surfaces are the equivalent of dynamic video screens.

The lights are in the walls! The ceiling is the light! Everything is a potential ad and video space. And it’s all running at virtually zero cost.

San Diego CCAM’s state of the art lighting is due to the constant evolution of organic light emitting polymer technology – sheets of organic plastics that emit light when electricity is passed through them.

Some walls have interactive touch-sensitive panels through which users can interact directly with the internet, posting personal messages, exploring their stock portfolio or meeting friends in Second Life – all in super-size.

The rumors of the death of the US$50 billion light bulb industry have not been exaggerated.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

1878: First bulb invented
The incandescent light bulb changed the world – the Industrial Revolution fuelled it.
It has been around a while. In 2013 it will be 135 years since the English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan invented it in 1878, one year before Thomas Edison – who got the glory. While Wilson Swan’s carbon fiber filament bulb burned for 13.5 hours, Edison placed his filament in an oxygenless bulb and it burned for 40 hours.

1980s: Light-emitting diodes
The next revolution in light came in the 1980s, in the form of light-emitting diodes that lit traffic signs and formed the numbers on digital displays. LEDs are illuminated solely by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material, such as silicon. Unlike ordinary incandescent bulbs, they don’t have a filament that will burn out and they don’t get especially hot.

1989: Organic light emitting polymers – from OLEP to PLED>
Then in 1989 came organic light-emitting polymers (OLEPs). This new generation of glowing plastics responded to an electrical current by giving off visible radiation. Discovered at Cambridge University, and subsequently widely developed by Cambridge Display Technology Ltd, OLEPs removed the need for a silicon-based chip.

Light emitting polymer is an emissive technology. It comprises a fluorescent organic layer, sandwiched between two metal electrodes. Light radiates as the electric current passes through.

OLEPs can be made in the form of thin sheets or films and offer a huge range of applications. Flat screen displays were one of the first products, but polymer can be rolled up and tossed in a briefcase. Clothes made in polymer and powered by a small battery pack could provide their own cinema show.

Whilst the earliest OLEPs were dim and inefficient, giving off a pale green light, the latest plastics are so bright they are difficult to look at directly. Red, green and blue lights were developed. Their neon hues flashed across the night streets and transformed the world’s display and advertising hoarding industry – worth US$85 million in 2005.

But the jewel in the crown was white light.

Initially, OLEPs could emit light only over a very narrow range of wavelengths, so were poor for general lighting use. The ideal lighting source in a house or office is one that gives out a broad spectrum of light. Scientists first tried making white light from a number of differently colored light-emitting diodes that spanned the visible spectrum, but this resulted in poor color stability.

Today, OLEPs are frequently referred to by the more modern PLEDs – Polymer Light-Emitting Diodes.

2002: White light
Then, in 2002, researchers found they could stimulate polymers to phosphoresce. This resulted in a white light equivalent to some of the best commercial fluorescent bulbs at the time. Whilst these early lights compared to only 5% of the power efficiency of an incandescent bulb, and 20% of a fluorescent bulb, scientists knew their devices could outperform conventional lighting technologies, given the pace of research.

Why is this white light causing another revolution? Because it’s cheap and it’s flexible. Light emitting polymers can be grown with ease and affordability on virtually any surface. And they are cheap to run: OLEPs will save billions of dollars in energy costs.

And then there is the effect – which is simply stunning. Large-area sources of light can be integrated into interior building materials such as ceiling panels and wallpaper. You can light brightly or you can diffuse it, in any shape, color or texture. Rooms with whole walls of light are being shown in the pages of the trendiest interior magazines.

2003: Future value of light
If the general illumination industry was worth US$40 billion in 2003, when the incandescent bulb still dangled in the middle of our rooms, how much more will the pure white light from organic light emitting polymers be worth in the years to come?

Their efficiency has increased ten-fold every decade, and should increase that way into the foreseeable future.

2006: The Economist touts death of the light bulb>
In a September special edition, an article states: “Light bulbs are the last devices that use vacuum tubes, an old technology that has been replaced in radios and most televisions,” and predicts that LEDs will eventually achieve efficiencies of almost 100%.

“The greatest impact of LED-based lighting could be in developing countries, where it can be powered by batteries or solar panels.”

2010: OLEDS and displays merge
Announcements by several US, Indian and Chinese companies show the complete convergence of lighting and visual displays. They predict that by 2013 costs will be low enough to completely equip offices and shopping centers with wall-size panels that serve both functions of lighting and video displays.

Large construction firms now plan to integrate virtual reality areas into major shopping centers, for personal experience and mass entertainment.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.