Last October 14, Lighting Dimensions sponsored a special program for the New York section of the Illuminating Engineering Society. Entitled "Fiber Optics: Myth vs. Reality," the session explored this technology, which over the last several years has grown in stature from gimmickry to a genuine lighting tool for a variety of applications. It was hosted by program partner Consolidated Edison, whose building spire features one of Manhattan's most prominent fiber-optic displays.

As part of the activities, several fiber-optic manufacturers and systems integrators demonstrated solutions to design challenges that simulated real-world lighting applications, and discussed them in technical presentations. Barbizon, Drama Lighting, Fiberstars, Lucifer Lighting, Mitsubishi, Remote Source Lighting International, Super Vision International, and Unison Fiber Optic Systems displayed their know-how in an emerging industry that has seen much growth and retrenchment over the past few years--indeed, over the past few months (see "Strands and sidelights," page 36, for news on recent developments in the field).

Separate from this program was a roundtable discussion on fiber-optics issues, moderated by Lighting Dimensions editor Robert Cashill. The panelists were Naomi Miller, IALD, the design applications manager of the Troy, NY-based Lighting Research Center; and Scott J. Hershman, IALD, senior associate at New York-based architectural lighting design firm Fisher Marantz Stone.

What follows are excerpts from that panel, including questions from audience members. Lighting Dimensions (whose technical editor, William L. Maiman, has moderated fiber optics seminars at the LDI and Lightfair trade shows) invites readers to share their thoughts and opinions on fiber optics as we continue our coverage of the industry in subsequent issues.

ROBERT CASHILL: Please tell us about your experience with fiber optics.

NAOMI MILLER: I've had a very concentrated experience with the technology recently. I've been assigned to do the lighting in an all-metal-alloy home in Florida--about as bizarre an application as you can imagine, one that pushes the envelope. And fiber optics is one way to do it.

SCOTT HERSHMAN: I have worked on projects using fiber optics in art and museum cases. We have also used it as a decorative element in coves and exterior projects, and have evaluated it for different applications.

RC: What are the advantages of using fiber optics over neon or other kinds of lighting?

SH: With the display cases, where we worked with end-emitting fibers, the advantages were clear--there was no heat inside the case with the artifacts. Also the ability to change the lamp, and remotely locate the lamps, so we didn't have to preserve the artifacts to get to the lamp. And because the lamp was remote, we could change it without ever going near the focus of the fixture.

NM: There are two additional reasons to use fiber. One is that there is no electrical power in the fiber--a number of stores don't want to put neon on the wall because people might touch it or break it, or get electrocuted. It is a lot safer to put up fiber optics instead. I've heard of fiber optics being used on ship gangways, where they give passengers some guidance without all the electric cords that have to be plugged in to power lights--cords that passengers can also trip on. If something cuts through the fiber, there is no exposed electricity to cause any liability problems.

The other reason is maintenance. There are glorious chandeliers in a lot of grand old buildings. And changing the little bitty incandescent light bulbs in them is a pain in a neck--it takes many days of work to set up the scaffolding. It is a whole lot easier to put a remote source in a closet and run fibers through the chandelier and produce a flame-like effect; you don't change every individual bulb in the chandelier, just the one in the closet.

And don't forget the cool factor. Fiber optics is seriously cool. It produces effects that can't be matched by anything else.

RC: What about the disadvantages?

SH: The biggest factor holding fiber back is that most manufacturers don't document their products the same way that conventional sources of illumination are documented; it's difficult to look at a fiber-optics package as an alternate source because of that. If you're looking to substitute it for neon, you would like to see things in lumens per foot or some linear measurement that you could compare it against as a sample. And that is lacking, I think, in the industry.

And with end-emitting fibers, if you are replacing downlights or objects like that, you need real photometry so you can compare them to the sources that you are replacing. And that really has not been comprehensively done by any of the manufacturers. Some of them are starting to do it, but there don't seem to be any standards about how it should be done. And when you look at one company's report versus the next, even the methods they have used to photometer their product vary.

NM: There are lots of technological impediments. One of the big problems in my book is efficiency--you have a certain number of lumens that go into the lamp, but getting those lumens out through the ports of the illuminators into the fiber (and then ultimately getting them out of the emitters or fixtures, whatever we choose to call them in the actual applications) is an issue. If the amount of light delivered to the port isn't equivalent at every endpoint in the core, you're going to end up with a lot of color and output variation in the fixture. And by the time the light goes through all those different paths, the number of lumens that you're getting out is, proportionately, extremely small. If you look at the comparable lumens per watt, it is down in the range of incandescents.

At this point fiber-optic systems are advantageous in places where you have impediments to using normal fixtures, like in cases, or places where access is difficult or liability is a problem. And there you can certainly afford to use them. But manufacturers need to take the next leap in efficiency, to make fiber a more viable product for more common applications.

SH: It would also be great if this industry were standardized to some degree. On some projects, you may want to mix and match fiber products from different manufacturers, and you think you can do it based on what you've heard about them.

Another problem I've had with fiber is that it didn't work because it was poorly installed. Without properly trained installers, even the best projects, using the best products, are doomed.

RC: What's the best way to introduce designers to the fiber medium?

NM: If I had my druthers, there would be a fiber-optics manufacturer that would produce an MR-16-based incandescent illuminator that would have a standard set of 10'-long (3m) fibers coming off it. This unit would have a cord and plug on it, and some little mounting gizmos. You take this little illuminator and park it in the back of your stereo cabinet--you know how much of a pain in the neck it is to see inside stereo cabinets? You plug it into the strip that all your stereo gear is plugged into, and then you play with all the fibers coming off it to illuminate the different components. Then you mount it in your cabinet, and see what kind of effects you can produce there. That's a fun and reasonably priced way to play with this technology, and to hook designers on using it, as they could use it in their own homes.

I personally am intimidated by fiber optics because looking at a catalog and trying to figure out what you are going to get out of the opposite end of the illuminator from this whole kit of parts that goes together is a little hard for me to grasp. But I got a feel for it by starting out with a little incandescent illuminator, and playing with different things. A little system that people could learn on would be great.

SH: However you learn, it's important to do mockups. If you think you might want to hang some fiber around the side of a building, drape it on the side of your building, and walk down the block and see how bright it is. The only way to understand what fiber does and how it illuminates under different conditions is to try it out, and look at it objectively, for yourself--with the information that is available now, there is no way to figure it out ahead of time.

NM: I fully understand the difficulty of sending out expensive samples, but you just can't estimate from the product literature what you are going to get. We really need samples in fiber optics more than in any other product we specify.

RC: Are there any products you would like to see on the market?

SH: A downlight, at the end of an end-emitting fiber, developed with all the aesthetic considerations that go into conventional downlights, yet addressing the miniaturization that fiber optics makes possible.

NM: In the fixture department, we are so used to using MR-16s and popping in honeycomb louvers or color filters or dichroics. And we are also used to MR-16 fixtures where the lamp has been recessed above the ceiling, so you don't even know there is a light source there.

Most of the fiber-optic fixtures that are on the market still look like they are evolving from the Jacuzzi markets from where they came. They bulge. You can see them up there in the ceiling and they look dreadful.

Why can't we have a recessed gizmo with a white gripped baffle, just like a baby MR-16 where I can put in a louver or a dichroic filter if I need to? If I have fibers that are delivering a slightly different color at the end of each one, I'm going to want to put a slight color correction in front of each one of those I really need to tune the lighting system with. Certainly that will be necessary for beam lighting.

SH: In terms of tuning a lighting system, let's not match what we can do with conventional equipment--let's make it better. I'm also thinking about different distributions to accomplish this. I think the light coming out of the end of the fiber has a very specific photometric quality, a very narrow beam, and it is a lot narrower than we're used to. That means we need a lot more holes in the ceiling or a way to spread them out--and more holes in the ceiling is usually a bad thing where architecture is concerned.

NM: I would also like a side-emitting fiber that actually emits light. They are pretty pathetic right now. There is one product that I know of that delivers a significant side lumen, but you can't run it very far.

But I have a lot of sympathy for the manufacturer right now, because it is so difficult to specify the systems that we have. We have to rely on the manufacturer when we ask, "Okay, what gizmo do I use here to get this effect and which coupler do I use with what fixture and what wattage and how does this get mounted and how do I run it through the conduit?" and it's a nightmare. And I can't do it by myself. Which means manufacturers are spending big bucks on applications.

RC: What new applications do you see for fiber-optic lighting?

SH: A natural is the emergency lighting market. You can have one really bright source with an instant start and run your emergency light, you can test in one location--you can do all those things. And you can miniaturize the appearance of the emergency lights.

NM: I would love to have a kitchen or china cabinet that I can actually see into. I would love to have a small fiber-optic product that gracefully lights my cabinet, so I could see to the back of it, and find that figurine that Aunt Gladys gave me.

Right now, it is not only expensive, but difficult to find linear strips that are small enough to fit into the front edge of the cabinet. I don't think it would take a whole lot of development to do something like that with fiber optics. And there are also applications like supermarkets, where there are freezer cases and cold cases, where it would be ideal to run fiber to light the products but keep the heat out of the case.

RC: Are there any final questions for our panelists?

Q: What about fiber-optic systems for use on exteriors?

SH: The problem that we run into with fiber optics outside is where to put the illuminator. It would be great to have an illuminator that could be buried underground, without worrying about it filling up with water, and ventilation problems.

I can say this about fiber optics: Every client thinks that fiber optics is absolutely what their project needs. They are captivated by the compact size of the technology. But the illuminator--we need to put that somewhere too. That big box makes it difficult to integrate fiber optics into architectural applications. But high-output illuminators, and longer transmission fiber, are meant to be reducing the cost and making the technology more accessible in the general marketplace.

In lighting, few markets are as dynamic--or volatile--as fiber optics. Late last year was particularly seismic, with Remote Source Lighting International (RSLI) announcing a major retrenchment of staff and a return to core markets like themed entertainment just days after its presentation at Con Edison.

A month later, just a few days after LDI98, Orlando, FL-based Super Vision International (pictured) released some big news of its own: It had granted Elk Grove Village, IL-based Cooper Lighting, a subsidiary of Cooper Industries Inc., exclusive marketing and distribution rights in North America for its fiber-optic products for architectural lighting.

As part of the agreement, Cooper will acquire approximately 10% of Super Vision's outstanding stock for $2 million and receive a seat on Super Vision's board of directors. Beyond saying that Super Vision broadens its product line (including the Halo, Iris, McGraw-Edison, Lumark, FailSafe, Metalux, Sure-Lites, AtLite and Lumiere brands), Cooper officials were tight-lipped about their plans for fiber optics. But they see Super Vision's products as "very viable" for use in the commercial, residential, and industrial marketplaces, which will be promoted through the traditional channels of literature marketing and training sessions.

Super Vision chairman and CEO Brett Kingstone expounded on the importance of the deal. "Super Vision has grown, in the last four years, from a $1 million to a $10 million company. In terms of annualized sales growth, that's pretty spectacular, but as a percentage of the overall lighting industry it's minuscule. In fact, the entire fiber-optic industry isn't a fraction of 1% of the industry. The reason we sought the biggest and best corporate partner we could find was that, through their marketing, resources, and capabilities we could leap past whatever hurdles there are in mainstream acceptance of the technology. A Fortune 500 company has now added fiber optics to its product line, which adds major credibility to what had always been a minor player in a lighting rep's portfolio of products. Now we're ready for prime time."

He says the two companies plan to work together to bring fiber optics to the next level, particularly in fixtures. "If you look at many ofthe fiber-optic fixtures out there, they're all basically off-the-shelf eyeballs, or fixed lenses. There's not a lot of technology like you see in some of the major fixture makers, who've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in tooling and have really considered how the optical configurations of fixtures throw light. That's where fiber optics has to be."

This year, Super Vision plans to release "a new line of sources with a dramatic increase in color temperature and light output in lumens per watt," Kingstone says. "I think people are going to be looking at the new Super Vision illuminators, as well as our new line of cable that is at least 40% brighter than what we had previously. With these, in endpoint applications, you'll have a yield of up to 80% higher output, and in side-glow applications a yield up to 45% higher output. Our investment in research and development has dwarfed that of our competitors--you absolutely have to make that investment, besides forming strategic alliances. The product alone still doesn't have everything it needs to replace or equal many traditional lighting applications--it still needs to be brighter and more efficient in lumens per watt, and in dollars per lumen. We recognize that and are working on it."

Other firms queried by LD discussed some of their plans for the year. Ken Yarnell joined Lumentye as its director of architectural markets after RSLI, a company he co-founded, revamped. "Lumenyte is working on developing both fiber and illuminator-type products," he says. "Certainly by Lightfair [in May] we'll have many new products. Lumenyte will be introducing a new fiber that will be a neon replacement-type product."

Yarnell says Lumenyte, which has introduced high-output Linear Emitting Fiber (LEF), is getting involved with larger projects, more domestically than internationally at present. He added that while the decorative use of fiber will continue to be a big part of the industry, applications for the architectural and commercial lighting markets represent the future.

Ben Cantu, sales manager of Fiberstars Inc., says the firm is developing more "performance-oriented" products, ranging from illuminators to downlights. Cantu sees more fiber in the future, with applications that go beyond star ceilings or traditional sidelighting into true architectural systems, with all lighting achieved cost-effectively by fiber optics.

Fiberstars has also recently acquired FibreOptics International Inc., a designer, fabricator, and installer of custom fiber-optic lighting solutions headquartered in Seattle, whose clients include Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Entertainment, the Smithsonian Institute, and Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Fiberstars has also appointed many new sales representative organizations throughout the southern United States.

Says Tom Fay, president of fiber-optic manufacturer TPR Enterprises, "The most exciting developments in this industry will be in the area of illuminator development, including new reflector technology and new lensing for endpoints. The actual fiber itself is becoming a commodity-type product and for many applications can be purchased in a manner similar to copper wire."

Regarding recent projects, TPR is most proud of the special curtains it has developed for the Riverdance tour. It has also created special aisle lighting systems for the ongoing renovation of the Music Box Theatre in New York. This aisle lighting project is very significant, since it involves point-source and not side-glow fiber.

Kingstone says fiber optics is finally coming into its own. "For far too long, fiber optics has been regarded as an add-on, and not something that would be included as a standard specification item in downlighting or cove applications, for example. Fiber optics has been used hesitantly, or infrequently. But with Cooper behind us, lighting designers and specifiers will be more comfortable specifying the product. Which creates a tremendous watershed, not just for us, but for the entire industry--people may have chuckled at fiber optics five years ago, but it's hard to do that when major lighting companies are looking at it seriously."