Forecasting the future of technology is anything but an exact science. In late 2006, for instance, my colleagues and I put together an article outlining our predictions for the top 10 tech trends for 2007. My record was, shall we say, mixed.
On the plus side, I predicted Nintendo's Wii would be a big success. On the flip side, I also predicted that LED light bulbs were also about to hit the big time, replacing standard incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Clearly that didn't happen. It turns out, though, that I just might have been premature in my prediction. 2007 may have been too early for LED light bulbs to even start to go mainstream, but 2010 may not be.
Regardless of whether this is the year, the betting money -- in the form of investments from the government, giant corporations and venture-backed startups -- is that LED light bulbs will become a fixture in consumers' living rooms in the not-so-distant future.
LEDs -- or light-emitting diodes -- have a number of things in their favor. Rising energy costs and global warming have sparked interest in more efficient lighting. LEDs are considered far more reliable and durable than incandescent or CFL bulbs. As a semiconductor-based product, they've benefited from the rapid developments in that broader technology, seeing an increase in efficiency over time that has paralleled the increase in processing power of microprocessors.
Already, LED bulbs generate light more efficiently than incandescent ones, and about as efficiently as CFLs. Unlike CFLs, they don't contain mercury and can typically be used with a dimmer. And while early white light LED bulbs tended to give off a bluish tint, lately they've been getting closer to the warm glow of incandescents.
The federal government is backing LEDs in a big way. The Department of Energy is sponsoring the "L Prize," a competition to spur the development of LED bulbs that could replace the standard 60-watt incandescent bulbs and the halogen bulbs often used in recessed or outdoor spot lighting. The government plans to hand out $20 million in prizes to the contest winners and, more important, work with energy companies around the nation to promote the new bulbs.
At the same time, the United States and other governments around the world have put in place new efficiency standards that will essentially ban the sale of standard incandescent bulbs in coming years.
The Energy Department has already received one entry in the L Prize competition, a new LED bulb from Philips, which is making a big investment in LEDs. The company's Lumileds lighting division, which develops LEDs, is based in San Jose.
Philips plans to have a commercial version of its L Prize entry on store shelves later this year. The initial price will most likely be steep -- reportedly about $60 a bulb -- but even at that price, consumers will probably save money over time. LED bulbs are expected to last up to 25 times longer than standard incandescent and the Philips bulb will use about one-fifth the power of a 60-watt bulb.
Although I haven't yet gotten to test it out at home, I saw Philips' bulb in action at the company's Lumileds facility. What was impressive was that its light output, in terms of brightness and the color of the light, was little different to my eyes than that of an incandescent bulb lit beside it.
I have been using some other LED light bulbs in my house lately. I've been testing out some bulbs for recessed lighting and some 40-watt equivalent bulbs from Lighting Science and another 40-watt equivalent bulb from Pandigital, which is slated to hit stores later this year.
I've been most impressed with the recessed lighting bulbs. I used one to replace an equivalent fluorescent bulb in my kitchen. The LED bulb was brighter, had a more natural hue, didn't require several minutes to warm up and dimmed without humming.
I wasn't as impressed with the 40-watt equivalent bulbs. The one from Pandigital, which looks more like a flying saucer than a standard bulb, was particularly dim. The ones from Lighting Science were brighter and not all that much different in their light output than the 12-watt CFLs they replaced. But they didn't exactly light up the room.
That said, I'm convinced that LEDs have a bright future -- even if it's arriving a bit later than I expected.
A new generation of LED light bulbs is starting to hit store shelves. Here are some of the coming options:
Philips: Plans to introduce a 60-watt replacement bulb in the fourth quarter this year. The EnduraLED bulb is expected to cost about $60 apiece but will run at 12 watts and is expected to last 25,000 hours.
Lighting Science Group: Plans to launch a 60-watt replacement bulb in its Definity line in the third quarter this year. The bulb is expected to be priced at less than $35 apiece and will run at 9 watts.
Pandigital: The company plans to begin selling an odd-shaped 40-watt replacement bulb dubbed the Light Engine in the fourth quarter. The bulb consumers 9 watts; the company hasn't released the price yet.
Explore further: Environmentally compatible organic solar cells