You can tell a lot about a restaurant based on the lighting. A darker room is intimate and romantic, while a well-lit space is more casual, a space for happy hours and business gatherings.
Most eateries have to choose a single lighting motif because changing it requires a lot of work and time.
Pearl, a seafood restaurant in downtown Bellevue, Wash., is testing out a lighting platform that uses liquid crystal display (LCD) and solid state technology to control focus point, shape, color and other aspects of light through a smartphone app or device that can be plugged into a computer or tablet.
The technology, currently being developed by a San Jose, Calif.- company called LensVector, allows Pearl to choose different light settings for every table, said Mikel Rogers, the restaurant’s managing partner. One table could be low-lit for a date, and the one right next to it could be bright for a group gathering. A meal could begin with low lighting and when menus show up the light could be changed to make it easier to read.
“You can essentially stand on one end of the room and use your phone and change (the light) right there,” Rogers said. “You don’t have to poke your head around and change it, you can make adjustments then and there.”
Pearl is one of the first businesses to test this technology, and it was the site of a recent meeting of more than 25 retailers, restaurant owners, galleries, real estate developers to see a demonstration of LensVector’s lighting technology.
LensVector representatives call their technology the last mile in the journey to control light. Controlling brightness, like using a dimmer switch, has long been available, and changing colors has become common with smartphones and other devices. What hasn’t been possible is focusing and steering light in a simple fashion. LensVector says its new technology is bringing that ability to the marketplace.
“What we haven’t been able to do yet is change the shape of the beam of light, change the distribution and do it dynamically; this is the last mile,” said James Benya, who runs Benya Burnett Consultancy, a lighting firm based in Davis, Calif., that is working with LensVector on its technology.
The applications for LensVector’s technology are endless, say its proponents. They listed hotels, casinos and art galleries as just some of the possible uses. At the office, employees could toggle between light settings when reading documents on their desks or on the computer. Shop owners who constantly rearrange displays would easily be able to change how they are lit.
Howard Earhart, CEO of LensVector, said the lighting technology is still in its alpha testing phase and the team would not say when a final product will be launched. Within a month or so, Earhart said, LensVector will be back with a beta test. LensVector has not set a final price for the product.
Earhart, who has been involved in numerous company turnarounds, said the most important thing is to get the technology right before bringing it to market.
“Right here, we’ve got all the constituencies and the applications so that we really nail it, before we go out and scale it,” he said.
LensVector’s original research was done in Quebec and its business side and software development is in San Jose, but it will launch in the Seattle area and seek approximately $5 million in its first investment round in the region. That’s partly because some of the major investors are based in the Northwest. Flohr Asset Management, a Bellevue-based firm that invests mostly in real estate, has a 25 percent interest in the company. Jeff Flohr said he plans to bring LensVector’s lighting technology into several of his properties and other businesses.
There is also a big lighting community in the Seattle area that the team thinks will understand and appreciate what LensVector is doing.
LensVector unveiled this technology at the 2016 Lightfair Show in late April in San Diego. Based on the positive response, LensVector said it decided to bring in Benya and A. Brent York, two titans of the industry, to help refine the technology and bring it to market.
Benya, who has worked in the light industry for 42 years said LenVector’s technology “probably one of the most exciting new breakthroughs in lighting we’ve ever seen.”
From cell phone cameras to lighting technology
Tom Killick and Tigran Galstian, a physicist at Laval University in Quebec, co-founded LensVector about 10 years ago to build more efficient camera technology for cell phones. Killick is the current vice president of business for LensVector.
The company had raised more than $50 million over several years to build a solid state cell phone camera to be released in China. That plan was still alive until late last year when the Chinese market collapsed. Flohr said the sinking economy there drastically lowered the price of phones, and the camera technology no longer made sense. It was at that point the LensVector team decided to focus on the lighting technology, which had also been working on for some time.
Flohr said the cell phone technology is still alive and will be brought to market when the time is right.
Billy O’Neill attended LensVector’s pitch last month. He was Dale Chihuly’s right-hand man for more than 17 years, and figuring out the perfect lighting configuration for glass pieces was a key part of his job. He now has his own company doing branding for a variety of clients including artists.
O’Neill said art galleries in particular make sense for this new lighting technology because typically they only have a limited number of lighting setups to showcase a variety of pieces. Every time they want to change something they have to go up on ladders and do it manually. He envisioned a scenario where every piece could get its own custom light display.
“It would take a lighting designer a long time, a lot of bulbs, a lot of fixtures and a lot of dialog, but here you can stand below a piece with your phone and dial it in,” O’Neill said.