The technology that could 'revolutionise' how we light the world

By Dave Lee
Technology reporter, BBC News

Image caption, St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Kick-started by the invention of the light bulb, the way we illuminate our homes and our lives is ever-changing - particularly in a world where the challenge is to light more, but to consume less energy.

But Mark Major, one of the world's leading lighting designers, believes we're at the early stages of a lighting revolution.

"Changing technology makes me feel very clearly that this is as much of a revolution going on now as perhaps when gas went out and electric lighting came in," he says.

But what is it that makes something beautifully lit, and what role does technological innovation play in illuminating both our buildings and our state of well-being?

Mr Major's work - along with his late partner Jonathan Speirs - is award-winning, credited with enhancing the atmosphere of already iconic structures.

It is arguably Speirs + Major's most distinctive work, unmissable to Londoners, that displays this like none other: St. Paul's Cathedral.

Image caption, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Image caption, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

"It was a great privilege to work on that project," he says.

"Probably one of the toughest assignments we've ever had. It took about five years in its execution to design and have the lighting fully delivered."

The result is a building swathed in soft light - giving the building a sense of serenity in the hustle and bustle of Britain's capital city.

Legible cities

Inside, it was an even bigger task.

"When you're dealing with not just a heritage building, but a heritage building of that nature, you realise it was never really designed to be seen under artificial light in quite that way - it would have been seen in candlelight.

"You're placing, in a way, a new interpretation on the building and its architecture after dark, and you have to be very careful how you do that."

Image caption, Hedonism Wines, London

As well as tremendous buildings - Speirs + Major also work with more practical locations such as offices or restaurants, and even our streets.

"On a very basic level," Mr Major says, "Well-designed lighting in the streets of cities doesn't just keep you safe and secure, but also can really help to create a pleasant and interesting atmosphere.

"It can bring out the colour and texture of the landscape, it can sort of direct you to places, it can play a number of different roles in the city that are more than simply enabling us to see - good lighting makes our cities more legible.

"And I hope, as a result, more enjoyable."

Image caption, Copenhagen Opera House

He envisions a future where streets light up as you walk down them, but get dimmer when no-one's around, saving energy.

Not only this, but the light can be used to change the very mood of the street depending on the occasion - a delicate skill.

"We all know the difference between a romantic candlelit supper for two, with that soft, warm, glowing light focal that makes your partner look wonderful, and sitting in a fast food restaurant under fluorescent lighting and what a grim experience that can be."

LED revolution

This type of flexibility would not be possible with traditional filament bulbs.

Advancements in light emitting diode (LED) technology means lighting specialists are able to come up with far more complex arrangements.

"We've moved a long way from candles and gaslights," Mr Major says.

Image caption, The Queen's Walk, London

"LEDs are going to fundamentally revolutionise the way we work with light.

"It's smaller, it's cooler, and the quality of LED lighting has improved so much. Warmer light, broader spectrum, better skin tones, better reproduction of colour - just the overall quality."

But there are downsides with this revolution, he argues.

"The more light we bring into the world, the greater some of the challenges become.

"Research is beginning to rapidly prove that you can have too much of a good thing - we all know about light pollution."

Image caption, Infinity Bridge, Stockton-on-Tees, England

And it's not just human beings who would be affected, Mr Major says.

"Many creatures are adapted to the night - so by bringing along a lot of light we can really impact on their feeding habits, on their breeding patterns and all sorts of things.

"So we can enrich our lives, but we have to be quite careful how we work with this industrial material."