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The 33 Lounge and Restaurant in Boston features the LED technology of Boston-based Color Kinetics. The 33 Lounge and Restaurant in Boston features the LED technology of Boston-based Color Kinetics. (Globe Staff Photo / John Horner)
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Bright ideas

Pop quiz: name the one technology in your home that hasn't changed much since it was invented in 1879. Some hints: It breaks when you drop it, it's hot when you touch it, it dies unpredictably, and it sucks up excessive amounts of electricity.

You got it: Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb. A bulb made by Edison in the 19th century would fit into a 21st century socket -- and it would glow, too.

Three local companies think it's about time to change Edison's light bulb. They say that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the future of illumination. Most people are familiar with the glowing red LEDs used as indicators, to show that there are messages waiting on your answering machine, for example. But today's LEDs can be used to light up restaurants, Broadway stages, and even bridges.

They're essentially microchips that

manipulate electrons to produce light. Unlike Edison's bulb, there's no filament to burn out, and they don't get especially hot when they're on. Other plusses: They can last 10 times times longer than an incandescent bulb, and they require much less electricity -- up to 80 percent less -- to produce the same amount of light. And here's a stunning projection: If the world switches over to LEDs rapidly enough, it could obviate the need to build more than 100 power plants between now and 2020.

The problem is cost. Like early computer chips, today's LEDs are still too expensive to spark mass adoption. "You could replace a 100-watt light bulb with a 60-watt LED, and get the same brightness," says John Fan, chairman and founder of Kopin Corp., a Taunton company that makes LEDs. "You'd save 40 percent on power, but it would cost about $100. We need to bring that price down."

The market for LEDs is expected to grow from $1.8 billion this year to $4.5 billion in 2006. That creates huge opportunities for tech companies with bright ideas. The question: Will one (or more) of Boston's LED companies be among the leaders of the new industry?

The players are Kopin, a publicly held company founded in 1984 that makes the flat-panel screens that are built into one-third of all camcorders and cellphones; Color Kinetics, a fast-growing private company that has raised $48 million and gained national attention earlier this summer at the Tony Awards; and Luminus Devices, a very early-stage start-up out of MIT.

Here's my scorecard.

Kopin Corp. Kopin's cheerful chairman, John Fan, has an ambitious goal: "I want to replace all these crazy light bulbs." When he ran into Boston's mayor recently, Fan harangued him about changing the city's traffic lights from traditional bulbs to LEDs, as Brookline and Newton have done. "You don't have to change them as often," Fan explains. That could save the city money in labor costs.

Kopin is a key player in advancing LED technology. Last year, the company announced a new LED about the size of a grain of sand that leverages nanotechnology to produce a brilliant blue light, using less power than previously thought possible.

Kopin has been poaching engineers from other local chip companies, and investing heavily in a new production line in Taunton to produce LEDs. The company shipped 20 million LEDs in the second quarter, most of which will be used to illuminate the displays and keypads of cellphones.

Fan is pressing his engineers to come up with ways to increase the efficiency of LEDs while bringing down the cost. "It's a huge technological challenge, but that's what this country needs to do -- create new knowledge and new products, which will create new jobs," he says.

Color Kinetics. I admit I've had a hard time taking this company seriously. Often, when I've run into Color Kinetics employees, they're wearing badges or jewelry that light up in a rainbow of colors or flash like a strobe. I can't help but think they're on their way to a rave.

Though the company doesn't make LEDs, it does make software and control technology for programming light shows and mixing different colored LEDs. Color Kinetics's primary business is working with architects and designers to bring LED lighting to restaurants, nightclubs, airport terminals, and Broadway. The company's technology was used as a backdrop in the Tony Award-winning musical "Hairspray," where circular lights form vibrant patterns on a screen that resembles a giant LiteBrite toy. In Boston, you can see the technology in the 33 Lounge and Restaurant, among other places.

While selling to architects and the entertainment industry is a business with high profit margins, the company also makes a line of LED-oriented consumer products called CK Sauce. These products include a keychain that puts on different light shows, and a forthcoming line of illuminated jewelry for girls called Joolz.

But Color Kinetics president Bill Simms acknowledges that consumer products don't have "the margins or the upside that the professional lighting business does." Simms believes that the consumer products could help spur wider adoption of LED technology and brand awareness for Color Kinetics. But it could also spread the 75-person company's resources too thin.

The company holds 19 patents related to the control of LED lighting systems, and has filed for more than 100 additional patents. "We spend about a million dollars a year filing patents," says chief executive George Mueller. The company has two full-time patent lawyers in-house, and also works with the Boston firm of Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks.

Color Kinetics is already licensing those patents to several companies, including one that makes a hue-shifting, LED-based Tiki torch for your next backyard party, sold at Home Depot. But I wonder whether some of the Color Kinetics patents aren't overly broad, like one that covers the mixing of different color LEDs to create millions of colors, using a technique called pulse-width modulation. It's somewhat akin to my holding a patent that you'd have to license every time you wanted to use a wooden palette to mix different colors of paint.

One situation to watch: Apple Computer recently filed a patent application for a computer whose exterior would change colors, apparently after Color Kinetics had demonstrated their technology to Apple. "It covers a lot of our technology and a lot of patents we hold," Mueller says.

(Imagine that, though: a computer that would glow different colors based on how much of its processing power was being used. When it turned red, you'd know that a crash was imminent.)

It'll be interesting to see whether Color Kinetics can exact a licensing fee from anyone who blends colored LEDs. Says Simms: "We haven't invested the fortune that we have in intellectual property without planning to defend it."

Luminus Devices. Very little is known about this small Woburn start-up, except that founder Alexei Erchak is a former researcher at MIT's Microphotonics Laboratory, and chief executive Udi Meirav was an MIT researcher as well.

The company hopes to license to big manufacturers its approach to designing brighter LEDs. But as with Color Kinetics, convincing other players that the Luminus approach is worth paying for will be a challenge.

"They have a secret sauce that will be very interesting if it's unique and really good," says Fan at Kopin, who has had discussions with Luminus. "But [with LEDs], there are many ways to get to the same end, and very few innovative technologies that can block everybody off."

Meirav won't say much about what Luminus is doing, or who it's in talks with. "Buzz only creates pressure and expectations and competitive interest," he says. But he did say that the company has already attracted an investment from venture capitalists -- which will serve as a cushy stipend as the company chases a brighter LED.

No one knows how quickly the shift to LEDs will happen -- the technology has been around since 1962 -- but most experts consider it inevitable. And this is an overwhelmingly positive tech trend: By some estimates, LEDs could reduce global energy use for lighting by half by 2025.

But to be prepared for the possibility of more blackouts between now and 2025, you can already buy an LED-powered flashlight today -- for less than $20.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at kirsner@att.net.

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