LED evangelist Teddy Lo combines art and commerce in real world

LED technology, once restricted to one colour for use in calculators and VCRs, is now a 'planet-saving' ubiquitous source of illumination

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2014, 4:38am

A suggested war cry for those save-the-worlders who have seen the light (and are partial to cold war-era sloganeering): better LED than dead.

The proclamation's modern application refers to the light-emitting diode's capacity to slash electricity consumption and bring about our exodus from the greenhouse of doom. No longer simply red readouts on rudimentary calculators, LEDs are the power behind pictures on jumbo TV screens, the transmission of information from remote controls, the intensely annoying scrolling text up the sides of the ICC in West Kowloon, and much more. But first, a taste of the gospel of the holy diode: Planet LED, recently published by Teddy Lo.

A heavyweight volume, weighing in at 3.2kg, the book is a celebration of all things LED: in design, art, the environment, the "new visual culture" of indoor and outdoor video displays and commercial and residential lighting. The book features contributions from the world's innovators in optics, photovoltaic cell production, digital video and advertising, hospitality-industry lighting - the credits are extensive.

The engine driving it, however, is author Lo, an LED evangelist and Hong Kong and New York-based LED artist and designer who has exhibited his creations on the "tech-art scene" in Asia, Europe and the United States.

"I started as an artist in New York, using LED for contemporary arts," he says. "Then lots of people asked me to do commercial lighting design with LEDs, so I got into the industry. I saw how broad LED technology was and how it affected the market."

Later, Lo joined the family firm in Hong Kong, which was also involved with LEDs and learned about manufacturing and how general lighting and video technology are influencing the lighting business in different countries.

"I've met so many intelligent and talented people in a wide spectrum of industries. That's why I had the idea for a book," says Lo, adding that he did not really get started until studying for a master's in lighting at Queensland University of Technology, when he needed to come up with two final assignments.

"So I started writing its synopsis and backbone; in the end the book took six years, but it gave me the chance to say everything I wanted to and talk to people I wanted to," he said.

In talking to Lo the ubiquity of LEDs quickly becomes obvious. "The technology is diverse, besides its usefulness in art. I exhibit work in galleries, but only limited numbers of people see it. When I design lighting for buildings many more people see that. But most only know LED 'has many colours, it saves energy and it lasts for a long time'. There are so many things I want people to know, and before, books about LEDs were engineering or technology driven so the layman wouldn't understand much. I wanted a book to explain it to artists, designers, the public, but I also wanted to make it accessible, with montages, illustrations and art-direction photography," he says.

LED technology goes back to the days of digital wristwatches and VCRs, but they only came in one colour: red. In the 1980s green diodes were developed and finally, in Japan in the 1990s, blue. This was seen as a big breakthrough and 10 to 15 years ago lots of bars and restaurants started to use coloured LED lighting.

But the most important development came about five years ago with the development of white light to a level comparable to that of traditional lighting and the incandescent bulb. Consequently, major companies started manufacturing white-lighting products.

"At a football stadium or a racetrack like Happy Valley, and at big concerts, the giant screens you see are all LED, never LCD [liquid-crystal display] because you can't see those in sunlight and they're not modular, meaning you can't build them up to a massive scale," explained Lo.

"And those lights on the ICC are part of a 'media facade', which is a matrix that covers the building. With that you can create any animation, video or words."

China has more LED factories than any other country, probably more than 10,000, according to Lo, with the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo having showed the world how LED-advanced the nation has become. "Advanced in manufacturing power, yes, but in technology, Japan, the US and Europe are still ahead," Lo says. But at least the planet-saving - and dollar-saving - potential of LEDs is obvious everywhere.

"With an Edison-type light bulb, 90 per cent of the electricity produces heat and only a few per cent light. With LEDs there's an energy saving of about 80 per cent," explained Lo. "And a light bulb will probably have to be replaced every few months."

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