How would you use light if it was paper-thin and could be applied to any surface anywhere? When Rohinni CMO Nick Smoot asked me that question, I was pretty stumped at first.
But he's already figuring it out. That's because Rohinni has developed a form of what it calls Lightpaper. It's a way to print lighting and apply it to nearly any surface, in any shape, and for any situation. It's a kind of stunning proposition that reminds me of the first time I heard about 3-D printing.
"With Lightpaper it's more of a platform of light that we don't even know how it's going to be used," explains Smoot. "All we know is that we're trying to unlock the ability to create light."
In its current state, Lightpaper is manufactured by mixing ink and tiny LEDs together and printing them out on a conductive layer. That object is then sandwiched between two other layers and sealed. The tiny diodes are about the size of a red blood cell, and randomly dispersed on the material. When current runs through the diodes, they light up.
The promise of thin lighting has been simmering for a while, thanks largely to breakthroughs in OLED technology. But nothing viable has come to market, and Lightpaper is much thinner than OLED—which has been able to get TVs down to a fraction of an inch thick—and is lower cost and has a life-span of around 20 years, like LEDs.
Rohinni isn't interested in the entrenched TV market. The company would rather put the technology to use where it can make a big difference soon; everything from illuminating a logo on a mobile phone to providing headlights for a car. A few companies are already working on Lightpaper implementations, but Smoot wouldn't name any.
"The design process is something that can be done almost in an afternoon," Smoot says. "We've had people engage with us before, and before the day is out, we have designs that can go to market, which is a pretty weird thought."
Consumers should start to see Lightpaper in the wild around the middle of 2015. But Rohinni won't be aiming at the home hobbyist market until after it takes hold in the commercial and industrial space.
The big problem with the product's current, version one, is how it places the LEDs when printed. Right now, they aren't distributed evenly on the printed surface. This can cause a shimmering, or starry night effect. Smoot explained that for a lot of applications, this won't matter, but the challenge being worked on currently is to get specific placement of the diodes—to produce completely even light. Not an insurmountable task, a second version of Lightpaper is likely a few months out.
"The magical thing about this solution is it's brighter, it's thinner, it's flexible, it's addressable, and programmable. You can address the sections of the diodes, which is a whole other space when you start thinking about solutions of light that you can address sections of."