It's 5:37 a.m. on a wintry weekday and the world outside feels inhospitably dark and frozen. Inside, though, a warm light has begun to bathe your bedroom, softly brightening over the span of a half hour so that, in your dreams, you can almost believe that you are starting your day on a beach in the Caribbean. And then you awaken, but not because an alarm is droning in your ear. Rather, this simulated sunrise comes courtesy of a bedside light from Philips, one of several new lighting fixtures that address the psychological downsides of prolonged darkness by combining science with design.
By now, people in northern climes are familiar enough with the compact boxes that emit blue light to help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). But a new generation of products and applications suggest that light therapy can come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colours and spectrums. In a home setting, this can mean fluorescent desk lamps that illuminate from above while you eat breakfast or work on the computer to custom programmable LED lighting - pick from one of thousands of colours to set the mood - for the shower or bedroom.
Generally, the lights still look different, mostly to accommodate the therapeutic specifications. But design modifications have put an end to the clinical first-generation lamps and ushered in a new genre that boasts better aesthetic elements (finishes other than white, for example) and functional simplicity.
Even celebrated designers are trying to turn SAD lights into pleasurable objects. Eero Aarnio, best known for his iconic Bubble, Ball and Tomato plastic chairs, created the BrightBag, which not only evokes sunshine tucked into a shopping tote but also meets the medical standard (10,000 LUX) established for treatment of the wintertime blues.
Then there's the aforementioned Philips Wake-up Light: the frosted plastic surface and soft-edged trapezoidal shape give it the appearance of a futuristic lampshade without a base.
"Within the intimate context of the bedroom, it's not too big and can sit happily within a space like that," Jack Mama, the creative director for Philips Design, says from London. "With an object like this, you want it to have a more universal appeal: We wanted to get away from it looking like a conventional light product or clock radio with too many buttons."
The real benefit, however, is that it serves to increase hormone levels that help the body rise each morning. Once light travels to the brain, it reaches the pineal gland, which releases the all-important hormone melatonin, responsible for regulating our sleep-wake clock.
Russell Rosenberg, the vice chairman of the National Sleep Foundation in Atlanta, explains that these products have the joint purpose of reestablishing our bodies' circadian patterns while being user-friendly enough to avoid appearing medical. "Back in the day, when we didn't have as many lights, people would wake up to dawn … so that's sort of what this is; it's simulating natural sunlight progression over the hill or horizon," the doctor says.
During the oppressively dark months of January and February, this can be akin to a minor miracle. Dianne and Mike Nevins founded their Michigan-based lighting company, BlueMax Lighting, in 1997, when "malillumination" began to take a toll on her health. Although their original full-spectrum light boxes are still popular, they have since introduced dimmable desk lamps that aren't limited to therapeutic use. There is also a "dawn simulator" similar to the Philips Wake-up Light.
"We feel we have the technology part down pat now," says Lindsey Edwards, PR specialist for the company. "We're constantly adding to the line and getting a feel for what customers like and don't like. So when we decide to reengineer [the lights] we can create something that people are more excited about."
Doreen Balabanoff, the acting dean in the faculty of design at OCAD University in Toronto, confirms that companies are just starting to wake up the overlap between light therapy and design.
"There's a tremendous role right now for design to take scientific research that's coming out of labs and often being published in medical or engineering journals to the marketplace," she says. "Lighting, especially combined with digital technology, is a tremendous resource in the built environment … Something that a few years ago was considered dubious and seemingly New Age has now been verified by science and is now utilized."
Indeed, a 2006 study involving 96 patients in four Canadian cities found that people with a history of seasonal depression responded almost identically to treatment from a Day-Light (by Nova Scotia-based Uplift Technologies) as they did to an antidepressant pill. Those using the lamp even showed an earlier response time.
But can the brain sense a difference between artificial light and natural light? "Not really," Dr. Rosenberg says, adding that the production of melatonin is the same whether the light source is the sun or a plug-in device.
Beyond the home, light therapy and mood lighting are visible in many forms and forums. As part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, the Nordic Light Hotel, Sweden's top-rated hotel, is upgrading all of its lighting to LED. And anyone who has taken one of Air Canada's refurbished jumbo jets on a long-haul flight will have experienced the progression of coloured lights emanating from the ceiling panels that coincide with take off, mid-flight and arrival times (Virgin is another airline that offers the feature).
It certainly doesn't hurt that Tron: Legacy relies on icy blue and orange light - from clothing panels to vehicle grids - as a counterpoint to the vast black void of the story's alternate universe.
But slick statement aside, there is actually a deeper message to the fact that natural light does not exist in Tron's digital world. The female character played by Olivia Wilde asks the protagonist, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), to describe the sun. "Warm, beautiful, radiant," he replies. And with that, she smiles.
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