LED-ing The Way

Color Kinetics’ Kathryn Pattison explains the company’s new iColor Tile FX, a combo lighting instrument, controller, source, and miracle.

By John Landers

      Hey, lighting jocks! Here’s some news you can use: LED-based illumination is finally here. In addition to being cost-effective, LED technology allows lighting designers to achieve stunning new effects in the nightclub environment.
If LED lighting is the Next Big Thing in nightclub illumination, then Boston-based Color Kinetics (colorkinetics.com) should receive much of the credit. Since the company was formed in 1997, Color Kinetics has been hard at work pushing the proverbial envelope, continuously developing bigger, brighter, and better LED-based lighting systems.
      This year, Color Kinetics is preparing to unveil a truly revolutionary line of products at the annual Lighting Dimensions International (LDI) show in Orlando. “This will be our sixth appearance at LDI,” notes Color Kinetics Marketing VP Kathryn Pattison. “We actually launched the company, the technology, and our first line of products at LDI ‘97, so it holds a special place in our hearts.”
      Color Kinetics has certainly come a long way since then. With the recent introduction of the LED-based iColor Tile FX and Flex SL, the company has given club lighting installers and designers unprecedented flexibility and power. The Tile FX, in particular, is a radical departure from conventional entertainment lighting design. This product defies easy categorization; it’s a lighting instrument, but it’s also a controller. It’s a light source and an interior design element.
Basically, it’s amazing.
      Now, as Color Kinetics brings its next-generation control system to the market, lighting designers can finally transcend the inherent limitations of the DMX-512 protocol without abandoning their favorite conventional lighting hardware. In order to better understand the full potential of all this technology, CSI spoke with Kathryn Pattison of Color Kinetics about the past, present, and future of LED-based nightclub lighting systems.

Kathy, I understand that you joined Color Kinetics shortly after the company was formed in late 1997. At the time, did you think LED lighting would become so popular? Yes, I fully expected that this would be a growth industry. Many of us in the early days of Color Kinetics came from the high-tech industry and knew that semiconductor-based materials would follow the same price performance principles of Moore’s law.

I noticed that you had previously worked with Apple and Psion. Apple, Psion, and Quark. Personally, I saw a lot of parallels to the digital publishing market. I was excited, not only about [LED] technology, but about taking it to the lighting market and helping bring that market to the next level.

Historically, nightclubs have relied on incandescent lighting for general illumination as well as mood and effect lighting. What advantages does LED technology offer for club and lounge applications? I think there’s a host of benefits that can be attributed directly to the LED itself, and then on top of that are the additional benefits that are generated [by utilizing a] complete LED-based system.

How do LEDs compare to traditional incandescent or even fluorescent lighting? LEDs, of course, have a very long source life, and the industry’s beginning to better understand what the source life is and what the limitations of it are. For example, source life can be affected by how well a system is designed. The same LEDs in an expertly-designed system and a poorly-designed system are going to have very different [lifespans].

So, not all LED lighting systems are the same in terms of life expectancy? That’s right. LEDs, in general, far outpace any other light source when it comes to longevity, but there’s also an understanding that needs to be had by both the end-user as well as the designer of the system to maximize that advantage.

Are LEDs energy-efficient? Initially, LEDs didn’t out-perform conventional systems, but today, when you look at them – and let’s just compare them on white, which is the most efficient for a fluorescent or an incandescent source and the most demanding for an LED-based system - you now see that the efficiencies have outstripped that of incandescents, and this year are reaching that of halogen, and quickly approaching that of fluorescents. And that’s on white.

In other words, what you’d get from a bare incandescent or fluorescent bulb. And, in a typical club environment, many times those sources are being used in color or color-changing applications in which the minute you gel or filter one of those you’re losing a significant amount of efficiency. Producing full-spectrum white light and then filtering it to get a narrow band of color is rather inefficient - you can see that just by looking at a color swatchbook from Lee or Rosco. Conventional sources generate a lot of wasted light. It’s going nowhere, but you’re still paying for it. And, in many cases, you’re paying even more for it because you’ve got to figure out what to do with that heat. You have added cooling costs, you have degradation of the instrument itself, and you have to replace the gels, which are consumable items. It’s not only the cost of the consumables, but it’s time and the labor, too.

What other characteristics make LEDs ideal for use in a club environment? LEDs, being solid state devices, are very rugged. We have a system that’s on the deck of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It’s in an area that they had never been able to light before, because of the vibration from the traffic, but more so of the trains that run literally right over the top of that deck. Any conventional light source wouldn’t last a week having to stand up to that vibration.

You mentioned that LED-based lighting systems offer additional benefits for nightclub applications. How would you describe a Color Kinetics system? It’s like a computer network, where much of the intelligence resides in the light itself. It has a microprocessor built into the light. It’s receiving data and carrying out instructions internal to the fixture.

How is this approach applied to the iColor Tile FX? One of the differences with the iColor Tile FX is that it’s based on our next-generation microprocessor, which is called Chromasic. Because of Chromasic, we are able to achieve a very sophisticated level of control even within a single 2' x 2' tile.

Before, individual fixtures would be controllable, but now you’re able to address individual light sources within each Tile? Down to the node level. There’s no other company out there developing LED-based products that have the ability to create what we’ve done with Chromasic. This is a custom microprocessor designed specifically for intelligent LED systems. Up until this time, in order to do an intelligent system, you’d take standard, off-the-shelf components that are used for many different purposes - and they certainly have worked beautifully in many of the systems that we’ve designed - but we were coming to a point where we couldn’t take this control to the next level. We didn’t have exactly what we needed in an inexpensive chip, so we went about making our own.

So there’s a lot of potential there. [The Chromasic] is designed to do exactly what we need it to do, and it’s designed to be scalable, to be able to create these large networks that are sixteen, seventeen, twenty DMX universes.

What are the advantages for the lighting designer or technician at a nightclub? For one thing, simplicity. The chip is self-addressable, so you don’t have to go in and set unique DMX addresses for each node. We actually send data over an Ethernet network to an intelligent power data supply which essentially acts as a hub. It then sends information out to the lights that are connected to it; it is a two-way communication. It can query a network, find out what’s out there, and address it dynamically.

Which is completely different from the one-way DMX protocol. The way to control the total system differs, but DMX is used at the very end of the string.

So an iColor Tile FX display could be integrated into a DMX-based nightclub lighting system? Absolutely.

Could a lighting designer also add other elements from the iColor series to augment an existing installation? Yes. All of Color Kinetics’ products are DMX-controllable. The only time where that’s going to be a limitation is if, given the size of the installation, you run out of DMX universes. For smaller installations, say less than one DMX universe, all of these products can be used with some of our existing control systems, like our iPlayer2 and ColorPlay software, or any conventional DMX controller. When you start to get into large installations, particularly four or more universes, [the new] product line is going to greatly enhance not only what you can do, but how easy it is to do it.

I was excited,
not only about [LED] technology, but about taking it to the lighting market and helping bring that market to
the next level.


What can a lighting designer do with the iColor Tile FX and this new control system? With our new Tile light, you can generate effects like a burst of color, almost like a ripple as if you were to drop a stone in water; a spiral or swirl; sweeping effects, [all] either internal to just one tile at a time, or universally applied to an entire installation.

So, you could ripple a color change across an entire wall? And the programming to do that would be minutes, instead of spending hours writing separate commands for the individual nodes in each panel. It is, by the way, an open system, so we can always add more effects by dropping them in a filter in PhotoShop.

Each iColor Tile FX is a 2’ x 2’ square. Were these dimensions an intentional feature or a serendipitous side effect of the design process? Not only have we been developing systems for six years now, we have a very active relationship with our customer base, and we talk to them. This product was specified, before it was even designed, to not only fit into a standard ceiling grid, but also be wall-mountable. The final dimensions are actually 23 1/4 inches square by three inches deep.

Can the Tile FX withstand typical nightclub hazards like heat, humidity, smoke, artificial fog fluid, and beer? What we’re going to offer is a complete system that is both indoor and outdoor rated, which is an important consideration. You need to make sure that the product is going to stand up to both of those environments without sacrificing the architectural look of it.

Can installers customize the look of the Tile FX? There will be a UV-resistant lens material that will ship with the product, but it is removable. We will sell an accessory frame which you could [use for] your own lens . . . particularly in architectural specification spaces. They may be looking to [use] custom glass, whatever material they want, [and] they can use the Tile product as an engine behind that material, but it will ship as a complete unit with a diffused UV-resistant lens.

Color Kinetics was recently awarded its twentieth patent. How has this emphasis on technological innovation helped Color Kinetics in the entertainment lighting marketplace? I think Color Kinetics has always walked a very balanced line between supporting existing industry standards - from day one we’ve been a DMX 512-compatible system – [and pushing] what can be done. We’ve now gone far beyond what can be done with the limitations of DMX, moving to next-generation protocols, next-generation architectures and networks. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we weren’t spending the kind of research and development [dollars] that we are on that next generation control.

Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications