Last December, I discussed using optical fiber to transmit light for illumination. This month, I’m going to cover two more aspects of fiber optic lighting and light sources and how some of these lighting projects become real works of art. The advantage for fiber is that the source is at one end of the fiber while the light is at the other end or emitted along the length of the fiber. That isolates the electrical parts and the heat they generate from the actual light output.
Fiber optic light sources were originally bright lamps such as projector bulbs with lenses to focus light into bundles of fibers and filters used to create colorful output. These bulbs consume plenty of power and get hot, so there is also an electric fan keeping the assembly cool. Lights such as these are hard to couple into optical fibers, so the efficiency is quite poor, which means the power consumed for the amount of lighting is very high.
Recently, LEDs have become the source of most fiber optic lighting systems. LEDs use much less power than incandescent bulbs, and their small size makes them easier to focus into the fibers. You can use big LEDs focused into bundles of fibers, the way you can with incandescent bulbs or individual small LEDs coupled into each fiber, which is often a much more efficient method.
An individual LED for each fiber offers some interesting possibilities for creative lighting, especially since some LEDs can now vary in color. For pool lighting systems, it can create a light show, which is as entertaining as it is useful. Another popular application is a star field ceiling where each star is a fiber. With individual LEDs, the “stars” can vary in brightness to match the actual stars and be made to twinkle.
Of course, these creative applications would have to catch the eye of artists. Just like the electric light excited artists more than a century ago, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was famous for stained glass lamps, fiber optics has inspired many artists today. It has been my pleasure to work with a few of them to help incorporate fiber optics into projects.
One of the first projects was more architecture than art. It was a wall with fiber optics embedded in the concrete to make it transmit light and often images from the far side. Hungarian artist Aron Losonczi took the idea and expanded it into an award-winning business, Litracon, which creates architectural materials with lighted areas produced by the optical fibers.
Another artist using optical fibers is Carol Prusa. I have seen some of her large-scale hemispheres with embedded optical fibers in museums. They are beautiful, intricate sculptures enhanced with points of light provided by optical fibers.
The most spectacular fiber optic art covers almost 15 acres on a ranch in wine country near Paso Robles, Calif. Artist Bruce Munro used 15,000 fiber optic cables to create an undulating landscape of light. “Field of Light at Sensorio.”
Perhaps we should define what we mean by art in this context. Most fiber optic art is integrated into 3D objects, but some of the most interesting uses have been in fashion and entertainment. For example, Lady Gaga once appeared in a platinum blonde wig, which looked like human hair, that lit up. It combined human hair and small diameter optical fibers; the lights were part of a skull cap under the control of a technician backstage.
Carrie Underwood sang at the 2013 Grammy Awards in a white dress with fiber optic cables that displayed constantly changing patterns throughout her performance.
Claire Danes wore a gown by designer Zac Posen to the 2016 Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in New York. The one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn creation was crafted from organza and fiber optics, which enabled the dress to light up.
All types of clothing are now available covered in fiber optics. Just search online for “fiber optic clothing” and you will find thousands of items from jackets and scarves to umbrellas. You can even buy fiber optic cloth and sew your own creations.