MNN's Matt Hickman recently described how he has converted most of his home to LED lighting. I didn't have any fancy plumen bulbs in mine, so as part of my renovation, I got rid of every incandescent and compact fluorescent in my entire house. Inexpensive LED bulbs like the Cree that Matt used and the flat, funny-looking flat Philips bulbs that I used in some ways work like the old fluorescents did; they had ionized mercury vapor-emitting ultraviolet light, which excited a phosphor coating to glow white. That's what's happening in the white LEDs as well, but without the mercury. Instead, the LED emits the light that excites the phosphor. It's not perfect; the phosphors are mixed and tuned to be as close as possible to the incandescent light we all love, but the color rendering index (CRI) is not quite there.

For most uses, these phosphor-converted (PC) LEDs are just fine; many have a CRI of over 90 while incandescents are 100. However I wanted to try something really special over our dining room table. I had just purchased a classic triple bubble lamp, which was designed by George Nelson in the early 1950s but is still in production. Philips sells a starter pack of three of its Hue smart bulbs and a controller, so it seemed like a good idea to try it out.

phillips hue bulb starter kit

Photo: Philips

My wife was furious. She couldn't believe I would spend $200 on three light bulbs, and why would anyone want to have to get out their smartphone every time they wanted to turn on the lights? This was going to be a total pain for absolutely no gain. 

But unlike the PC LEDs, these are known as RGB LEDs, because they mix red, green and blue LEDs into any of 16 million colors. The Philips Hue website makes the case that color changes mood, and we know from years of study that our bodies have an internal clock that picks up the changes in the color of sunlight, which tends to be red when the morning sun is low and has to travel through more atmosphere, turning blue at noon and back to red in the evening. It's the circadian rhythm.

The Philips website also shows how the character of a room can be changed by adjusting the bulbs, which is pretty obvious to anyone who has done the same with a new coat of paint. But they didn't think about George Nelson and what happens when you have three different bulbs arranged this way. 

The Hue app comes with a set of stock settings that magically adjust the three bulbs to different colors, and it also lets you make your own. You can use the camera in your phone to take a photo of something (we have a great mix from one of our kids' friend's tattoo) and it will generate a pattern from it. You can set timers for them and even turn it into a disco. This sounds silly and useless, but it's not. 

My furious and dismissive wife, Kelly, discovered that the standard "Greece" pattern very warm and inviting for dinner. At breakfast she has another favorite, until I come upstairs and turn it to mine for maximum bright white light output. We really do adjust it for mood and tone. In fact, we're using it all the time. If you think thermostat wars are a problem for people, just wait for the color wars that are about to ensue over who controls the lighting. Here's a terrible video (I even get my finger over the lens!) of some of the mixes we love.

From Lloyd Alter on Vimeo

Upstairs, my daughter, who rents the apartment we just renovated there, complains that the light switch for her room is outside in the hall, something I forgot to fix in the renovation. I bought her a Hue bulb that she could control from her phone, because that was a whole lot cheaper than bringing the electrician back. (I didn't know about Matt's cheap smart bulbs at the time.) She doesn't just turn it on and off; she uses it as her alarm clock and sets it to different colors according to her mood.

The LED revolution in our homes is just getting started. We're still screwing them into ancient Edison-designed bases when they should be running on native direct current. There's no reason that they should look like an incandescent bulb. They are, in fact, little point sources that could be configured in a thousand different ways. But most importantly, there's no reason that they should just be white. I suspect that pretty soon they will all be RGB, and built into the fabric of our houses in ways we cannot even imagine.

I suspect my favorite designer, George Nelson, would have loved it.

Related on MNN & TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Philips Hue LEDs take smart bulbs to a whole new level
RGB-type LED bulbs like the Philips Hue give you a lot of control and they're a lot of fun, too.