Two things I like best about LDI are the opportunities to see old friends and look at new equipment. A friendly discussion with Rob Steele at Avolites led to a chance to use the new Borealis SL Series LED lighting fixtures that the company is importing into the US.

It so happened that I was producing and designing a new play, Peace: It's All About Respect! at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, opening immediately after LDI98 (see "Peace in our times," February LD, page 13, for more about the show). This production was in a 99-seat theatre, and had a decent complement of standard fixtures to light with. Adding the LED units seemed like a perfect way to test drive the fixtures, create some new looks, and not compromise the production if all went south.

The Borealis looked good in the exhibit stand, but would it really do anything on a stage? The boys in the booth took great pride in shining it up the wall of Phoenix Civic Plaza, showing off its stellar ability as a new wash fixture. At the very least, with a 15' (5m) grid height, how wrong could you go, I figured.

Paul Dexter from A1 Audio in Los Angeles (distributors for Avo gear) came by and we discussed the situation. Within about 15 minutes we agreed that, pending availability, we could have 10 (!) SL 1300 units for our production, and that we would offer program credit, publicity, and invites to any designers who would like to see them in action in exchange for a seven-week rental. Joe Tawil at GAM Products helped out with an Access board to run them, and we were all set.

We didn't exactly know when the LED units would arrive, so to ensure our production had all the basics covered, the show was designed without them having specific duty. When they did arrive, the first thing we noticed was that they came in cardboard boxes and had to be unpacked. We knew we were the first to get them, but didn't quite realize how "first" until we started peeling off all the newspaper wrapping and saw the recent headlines--in Japanese.

The basic configuration is a yoke that gets bolted to the sides of the unit, and a glass cover that acts as a light diffusion; it fits over the LED panel, and is held in place with four screws--two on each side of the unit. It's all about the size of a single-cell far cyc. The most striking aspect of the whole fixture is the panel. Hundreds of tiny LEDs are packed next to one another in a geometric pattern not unlike a honeycomb. I picked up the unit and was at first afraid to touch it for fear that something this delicate would break in an instant, then I thought, how can these tiny things put out anything close to a decent amount of light? But then I turned it on.

Holding the Borealis in my hands and shining it across the stage, it lit up the wall quite nicely--at 40' (12m). And I could comfortably hold it as long as I liked, without it getting very warm. Life was about to get interesting.

The units go together fairly quickly and simply, with a few quirks. We had to have their yokes drilled out just a bit to accommodate standard C-clamp bolts, which looked like a metric vs. US problem. We also found that the screws supplied to hold on the glass covers didn't all fit well--some had to be left off. The way our units went together, these screws did not allow the unit to tilt through the yoke; the screw heads stuck out too far. We had a couple of barndoors, but these screw on, and didn't seem necessary anyway, so we left them off. The units plug together very quickly, with solid connectors that have a screw ring for power, and standard DMX cables for control. Each unit uses three DMX channels for tri-color mixing: red, green, and blue.

One suggestion would be to set up the power cables and mating chassis mount plugs to be able to use the power cables as extensions that could connect to each other. This could be very helpful for touring, one-offs, and rental situations. On the other hand, the units are set up to have the power loop through daisy-chain-fashion, with an in and out, which is very handy, as you only have a single power cable at the end of a string of units. We ran all 10 units off a single 20A circuit with room to spare. Oh yes, the fixtures do not need dimmers, as they are all solid state.

Similarly, the DMX cables are daisy-chained in typical fashion. DMX addressing is set with the normal micro rotary switches--fine if you have a tweaker screwdriver, but don't dare forget that little one. Addressing is straightforward, as you might expect; setting the DMX address sets the starting address for the three channels. For consecutive units 1-4, Unit 1 has address 1, Unit 2 has address 4, Unit 3 address 7, and so on.

The Borealis fixtures power up in an "all on" state (when no DMX is present), making troubleshooting a snap. If DMX is present and all channels are at 0 level, they will be completely off. Another useful feature is that once DMX has been applied, and run to 0, they will stay off if you lose DMX, so not to worry that your lights will pop on in the middle of a show if you lose control.

The first thing I noticed when the Borealis units came on was the quality of the light. Right away it was obvious that they would add a new dimension to the stage. The beam is at once soft and concentrated--not quite flat, but with a somewhat rectangular shape with very curved edges that makes it almost circular. It mixes well with other units to create even washes.

It's very hard to describe the color of the beam at full white. First off, it doesn't look white, even though looking directly at the fixture you see white. It's something of a very pleasing blue-green tint with a slight red coloration around the edges that reacts beautifully on skin, doesn't look at all blue-green, and defies accurate description. The beam looks cool, but the light on the performer is warm. Go figure. It looked great on brown and black skin as well as white. That was a pleasant surprise, and one of a number of fascinating anomalies of these units.

A mixed color looks different onstage than coming out of the unit. Paints sensitive to pure colors pop out. We had a graffiti wall made with spray paints of different colors. The units were put through a color-fade chase, and as the colors mixed through teal, magenta, amber, and so on, the different paints seemed to leap off the wall individually as the lights changed color. And at the same time, the light on the actors looked saturated and wonderful. You have to love a light that can do both of those things with panache at the same time.

We found that the tri-color mixing works well, although the color palette is more suited to rock and roll and effects than the more typical pastels for stage. Unfortunately we didn't have a cyc to try them on. For our production, we had a dance number that featured a solo baton twirler. This was a natural use for the Borealis, and was lit completely with 10 fixtures over a 35'x15' (11x5m) area: three high sides from stage left, three from stage right, and four footlights (two each off center right and left). The coverage was fine for what we needed, although in a larger venue with a number that required more punch I would have doubled up on the fixtures.

I was continually surprised, though, with the amount of light these units put out. Of course, you always want more, and I've been told that brighter LEDs are on the way. One of the most incredible effects from this fixture was the way the light hit the baton. While "white" was coming from the Borealis, the performer was bathed in a light that somehow seemed to have the blue-green tint, with a marked warmth at the same time. The chrome baton sparkled in all the individual colors, the secondaries, and the white--all at the same time. It was alive.

As we integrated the units into the show, we found more uses for them. A hospital scene took advantage of the cool look of the LEDs to create an almost fluorescent tube-like atmosphere. We then put to use another of the wonderful attributes of the Borealis--instant color changing. We had a "code blue" cue where the high sides all instantly flashed blue. It looked perfect. We used a similar effect for a music awards scene where the fixtures were going through an instantaneous three-color chase, and found that the units could inherently chase faster than the board controlling them; they would instantly strobe. With the right board this could be a really cool effect.

For a school dance scene, we set another three-color chase, this time with slow fades. The Borealis units handle fading well, except at the very start and end of the fade where they pop on and pop off. This can be a little disconcerting, and is something that needs to be improved in the future, if the units are expected to be used in theatre. I understand that discussions are already underway to sort this out.

I also found that I did not care for the way they mixed with conventional lights to punch up scenes--it didn't work to bring up the overall level of a scene the way a typical wash would, because they changed the look too much with their very different quality of light. But this was exactly what I loved in other scenes where I needed a marked contrast of quality to work in counterpoint to the conventional light onstage. They did add something special to our production.

The Borealis is lightweight (7.4lb), cool, doesn't need a dimmer, requires very little power, is stable, compact, has a wide range of color-mixing with very pure and likeable primary colors, a good throw, and a concentrated beam. Best of all, it looks really neat. It will have a lot of applications in the concert industry, and especially in the architectural field. The price is a bit prohibitive for rental companies, so don't expect to see them in wide circulation any time soon. Of course, the same could be said of the now-ubiquitous moving-light fixtures when they first came out. I expect to see the Borealis proliferate in the years to come, and I can't wait to use them again.

Marc Rosenthal heads Marina Del Rey, CA-based Personal Creations, which offers lighting and projection design and production for a range of projects. He can be reached at marc@personalcreations.com.

The Borealis isn't the only new light on the LED horizon. GE Lighting of Nela Park, OH, has recently entered a joint venture with EMCORE Corp., Somerset, NJ, to develop and market new light sources using LEDs that could be an economical alternative to compact fluorescent, halogen, and incandescent lighting.

Says Michael Petras Jr., a seven-year GE Lighting employee who has been named president of the new operation, GELcore, this company will offer a range of high-brightness white light and colored LEDs for automotive, traffic, flat panel display, and other specialty lighting applications. "GE brings its expertise in phosphors and plastics and EMCORE brings its expertise in LED (solid-state) chip technology," he notes.

The new company will produce proprietary LEDs by converting gallium nitride-based blue semiconductor devices to white light. According to GE Lighting, the current market for all LEDs is estimated to be $1.8 billion and is expected to grow at 15% annually. It looks like this development comes full circle, since Nick Holonyak Jr., uncovered the first practical visible spectrum LED in 1962, while working at GE (red LEDs have been a staple of exit signs for years; bright blue and true green LEDs came along in 1993).

Other industry sources also foresee the inevitable evolutionary LED developments as having a tremendous potential for replacing older, less efficient light sources. John Bullough, a research associate at the Lighting Research Center in Troy, NY, believes that the first applications in the general lighting market will be for task and undercabinet lighting. Downlighting and display lighting are applications where LEDs will probably be used next, he said. But he doesn't see LEDs being used for general lighting, like a 2'x4' fluorescent fixture, for about 20 or 25 years.

The LED chip, which is immune to shock and vibration, is a relatively efficient converter of electrical energy directly to light, and is predicted have a lifespan of up to 100,000 hours. Since it produces no UV emissions and very little heat, this light source can be used near clothing or sensitive artwork. It can also be put into waterproof fixtures for fountains, pools, and outdoor use.

Technology that is waiting in the wings of research laboratories promises significant savings in lighting energy use. Kathy Pattison, vice president of marketing of Boston-based Color Kinetics Inc. (a firm making three-color LED lighting systems offering color-changing illumination) sees in this joint venture announcement that GE is validating the future marketing potential of LEDs as a light source.

Color Kinetics makes display lighting fixtures that provide constant changes of color and light patterns without gels. One product is a track-mounted fixture, which looks like an MR-16, that receives both power and a data signal (DMX or PC serial data protocol) and can generate more than 16 million custom colors and lighting effects.

Another manufacturer, Siemens, plans to bypass the need to use a trio of LEDs in achieving white light, by applying the same luminescent conversion principle found in neon lamps. By combining blue emitting diodes and luminescent dyes, a single LED can produce bright light emissions at altered wavelengths. The resulting mixture of colors is visible to the human eye as white light, and there is no need to control three primary color outputs.

In January, Torrance, CA-based Ledtronics unveiled single-chip white LEDs (pictured) as direct replacements for incandescent lamps in backlighting applications like cellular phones, electronic signs, and task lights. At 20mA, emission and color temperature are said to be similar to a daylight-color fluorescent lamp, and its CRI is akin to a triphosphor fluorescent (high-grade) lamp. The one-chip breakthrough, resulting in enhanced reliability and color integrity, indicates bright prospects for the technology.

Joe Knisley contributes to CEE News. William L. Maiman also added to this piece.