Earlier this month, artist Leo Villareal flipped the switch on his public art installation featuring 25,000 LED lights strung across the Bay Bridge. For the next two years, the bridge will host a changing array of patterns and images created by the lights. The project has literally and figuratively brightened up the Bay Bridge, which has long lived under the shadow of the nearby Golden Gate Bridge.

Using lights to spark an emotional response isn't new. The Eiffel Tower is famous for its yearly light show, for example. But LEDs are making it possible to control the movement and color of lights in very refined ways.

"You have thousands and thousands of points, and they all have simple rules, and somehow, something complex emerges. That's really the art," said Villareal, speaking to National Geographic about his program that controls the LEDs.

It's not just people in the art world who are praising the value of the installation. Ed Crawford, CEO of Philips Lighting North America, sees it as a major turning point for the lighting industry. 

"Up until now, light has been something we need to [use to] see," said Crawford. "And now light is becoming something to make me feel a certain way. The exciting thing about LEDs is that they offer controllability where you can change color, change motion, and change the look and feel of a room, a bridge or a building."

The Bay Bridge project uses Philips Color Kinetics white LEDs. But Crawford isn't interested in the project just because it uses his company's product. He believes it illustrates the massive technological changes underway in the lighting sector that are shifting the way customers interact with products.

I spoke with Crawford for a white paper I'm currently writing on the state of the energy efficiency market in the U.S. Lighting is, of course, a major focus for the paper. Part of my discussion with Crawford centered on how cost and functionality improvements are changing the game for lighting companies.

Your Hue LED product connects to an iPhone or iPad and allows for wireless control. This is part of a major push by companies to make lighting more interactive. How does Philips see this area of innovation?

That’s probably the most exciting area to talk about. It made total sense to introduce Hue in Apple stores, because the target consumer for the product is likely to be an Apple shopper. It’s been a tremendous success. For the first time, we’re seeing what LED technology can bring to the party in addition to just energy savings. LEDs allow full controllability of lighting. And for years, we grew up thinking controllability meant on, off or dimming. But what you see now is the birth of controllability [that foes further] than dimming -- whether that’s color, or using an app to make the lights react to music, or setting your iPhone clock so that you can wake to the lights coming on in your room. When you start thinking about what’s possible with light, it really shows the dawn of where lighting is going. At Philips, we think this cutting-edge transition isn't really about general illumination -- lighting the room so I can see. It’s more about light to make me feel. And that’s very, very different from how we've viewed lighting historically. We’ve never thought of light that way before. Up until now, light has been something we need to see. And now light becomes something to make me feel a certain way.

How has that changed the way Philips operates as a company?

It’s changed everything for Philips. This is shifting our thinking about lighting from a generic, rational product to a more emotional product. And that’s a retrenching for us. We have to re-educate ourselves, we have to rethink how the consumer interacts with our product. Historically, we’re used to consumers doing these cool, calculated investments about cost. And that’s certainly part of the LED story. But it’s only one part of the story. When you start to get into lighting as emotion and lighting as feeling, it changes your marketing approach, it changes who we hire, who we have working on our business. And so it really changes what we do. We have to reinvent ourselves. Because if we didn’t change, we’d really run the risk of being left in the dust. As a lighting company, you need to adapt to these changes now -- the business as we’ve known it over the last 100 years won’t be the same in five years.

Price points are starting to get us to levels where a large part of the market is interested in these technologies. That’s a paradigm shift in lighting. LEDs are quickly going from an emerging technology to being the mainstream of lighting. And consumers are going to see more amazing things in the lighting sector in the next five years than they saw in the 100 years before that. It’s exciting times for us here.

Keep your eyes out for our white paper, coming out later this spring. We'll explore trends in lighting, building controls, software, and financing.

Tags: leds, philips lighting, wireless lighting controls