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FIY

food design course at TUDelft
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Philips LivingColors, an informal product review

 

 

 

I live in a small, crowded house with singularly bad lighting. I also like having many small light sources. And I am a sucker for design. All these elements made me a natural victim of the Philips LivingColors

lamps. Plus, it allows me to express my unending admiration for the G3 Cube design without actually trying to use one of the things. I would like to insert deep links into the Philips product microsite, but this will not happen because the site is a screaming mass of multimedia Flash about which the least is said the better – other than I don’t like pages that mess up the CTRL-page Up combination in Firefox. I like tabs, sites should not try to dictate how I flip tabs.

At any rate, I saw this lamp in the house of Pieter Jan and I decided that I wanted one. Before I get into the rest of my rant, I will state two basic truths: it looks good, in an unobtrusive glass-vase sort of way, and it does make a pleasant light. Keep this in mind, lest we lose sight of the forest for the trees.

The lamp is being slightly marked down at Media Markt (elsewhere known as Media World), and I so I bought it more or less on impulse. At Media Markt, it was huddling in a not very exciting part of the shop, together with nameless extension cords and really big packages of batteries – right before the checkout. As a matter of fact, I found it more or less by chance, after wandering through all the store, which probably reflects a sort of category difficulty that this product will encounter: is it a lamp? is it a light-bulb? is it something associated with entertainment? Clearly none of the three. More about the positioning at the end of the post.

The product that defines you

Since the LivingColors lamp does not have a clearly defined function (too bright and wide-beamed for a reading light, too weak for a generic room light, too weak for a task light), Philips would like you to believe that this is a product associated with a lifestyle. In other words, you are going to buy it because of who you are not because of what you want to do. Or rather, because of who you imagine you are instead of what you imagine that you want to do, I mean, it is all a game of representation and identity: the product affirms your identity before yourself and everybody else. Now we could rant on and on in a postmodern, slightly cynical and blasè way, but let’s proceed then to the question:

who are you supposed to be? Based on the images present

 

in the Philips site, I would venture that

  • you are highly design conscious, in a way that induces you to buy or at least desire Mies Van Der Rohe or Verner Panton armchairs. Or maybe knockoffs of those armchairs.
  • you listen to music with headphones
  • you are 2/3 woman and 1/3 man
  • you are 1/2 white-bread North European, 1/6 darker South European, 1/6 darker yet Caribbean, 1/6 Chinese or Far East Asian.

And you like candles, champagne, newspapers, coffee with cookies, telephones. You harbor an unspeakable passion for disco balls. You like to think you have a social life and friends that will "share" into this fabulous product. 

You are either a single woman or a happy smiling couple. Or maybe a couple of lesbians.

In other words, you are an average Dutch urban dweller, the lamp says. 

Unboxing

The box is a bit bland on the outside. I guess it must be some standard Philips design for a box, mostly white with a big blue PHILIPS. Then they sprinkled it with pictures of the lamp projection some of its millions of colors, the usual happy, wholesome, young people enjoying the pretty colors and some color spectra (perhaps a bit too technical?).

Opening the box shows an internal architecture of transparent plastic divides that protect the lamp itself. On top of it there is a booklet with vague -very vague, actually- staff about the relationship between the lamp, its many possible colors and your mood. And they are all very good moods, but this booklet was so incredibly bland and friction-free and boring that I forgot all about it in a flash, so I will stop discussing it right now. The blandness was increased by the fact that the text is in approximately one thousand languages, which in turn makes the graphic design a bit tricky – since the reader is supposed to ignore about 95% of what lies on the page.

The lamp itself is presented in an intriguing pearl grey rounded soft bag closed by a drawcord, pretty much the type of bag a well behaved girl from a well off family would use to store her used underwear (you know: the type that needs hand washing). This is actually a good free suggestion for actually using this bag, since you certainly not going to use it for the lamp itself: I cannot see the user storing the lamp in the bag and then … sauntering off into the sunset with a cannonball shaped object casually hanging from his hand? And to go exactly where? I mean, do you take your mood lamp with you wherever you go? Just like an iPod? If it were battery powered we could probably stretch our imagination a little bit.

But as it happens, the bag perfectly fits the lamp, with no space left over for the necessary power adapter (a white wall-wart job, slightly nicer than the usual black type), probably in order not to spoil the lamp+bag silvery roundness. Thus, this hypothetically mobile mood color light user would have to remember to take the power adapter wherever he goes.

Anyway, the panties bag seems to me a perfect example of trying hard and then failing due to the lack of any possible use scenario. How do we make something more precious and appreciated? Wrap it! Give it a case! is a correct question with a correct answer. Maybe not so applicable to this particular lamp, though.

Plugging in

Upon plugging in, the lamp runs through a color spectrum to let you know that it is indeed plugged in and working. Response to the remote is pretty much instant. Satisfaction is really immediate, and placing this lamp requires less thought than other lamps, since it does not produce much heat and it can only be oriented on the horizontal plane – inclination is mandated by the shape of the base. Anyway, wherever you place it sits pretty and it delivers light. Because of the LED light sources, it turns on instantly to whatever setting it was at when you switched it off.

The only element that mars the purity of the shell is the coaxial power port. In other words, there are no buttons on the lamp body and you are wholly dependant on the remote for operation. One of my colleagues mentioned that this is the first lamp that allows you to lose its remote… perhaps one button for "full on white" and "off" would have been useful for emergency operation – but I can’t really see a situation where the LivingColors is the only available light in a room and you have lost the remote or its batteries are dead.

The light it makes

The light is quite pleasant and much brighter than I expected for an LED source. It is spread in a fairly broad beam, and the very pleasant thing is that the transparent material of the lamp body plus the translucent nature of the ring on which the light source is mounted makes the lamp itself very beautiful in outline. In this case the pictures do not lie.

When you fiddle with the remote, the light changes in smooth steps. Under some operating conditions, that’s to say at very low power, you can see some sudden steps that feel like dithering.

The remote

 

One of my colleagues’ students has actually worked on this remote, and I am happy to report that it is one of the nicest remotes I have ever touched. It is shaped like a little bathtub: to open it, you slide a button on the bottom, and the flat top comes off, carrying the electronics and the batteries with it. The insides are very clean. 

Some people have remarked that the remote is not easy to open. I have to agree that there is a trick to it, and that until you get the trick right it will not open. Since this is not an antique treasure chest, opening should not rely on users getting unintuitive tricks right.

Operation of the remote is not difficult at all, provided

  1. you have the Hue, Saturation, Lightness color model deeply embedded in your head. Photoshop junkies rejoyce! This lamp thinks exactly in your terms.
  2. you understand one complex yet smart interface trick.

the trick (thank you, Patrick, for making me notice) is that the color wheel operates in two modes: if you peck at it like a hen, it sets the hue to be equivalent to wherever you pecked. But if you drag your finger along the circumference, it will change the hue in the direction in which you are going – but there is no relationship between where your finger ends and the hue the lamp will take on.

Once you understand this trick, you realize that pecking is for setting quickly the hue, and dragging is for fine tuning.

Trying to be Apple: the logic behind

I can kind of imagine (wild speculation here) someone at Philips saying hey, we are the kings of LEDs! we really understand lighting systems! let us try to make something very cool and desirable, way sexier than a power-saving fluorescent compact lightbulb! and so they got to work on the Living Colors. I imagine that there is also a synergy with that bizarre peculiar piece of Philipsia, the Ambilight LCD displays – something that I would like to review but not to purchase. Anyway, knowing that they could lick the engineering+design problems (and there are many engineering problems when you want to make something like the Living Color lamp, having to do with non-linearity of LEDs, perception, heat dispersion), and since this product really fills a non-existing niche, they had to invent a reason for you to buy it.

This is no mean feat. Most Philips products solve problems: a beard trimmer trims your beard. A hair dryer, a microwave oven, the lighting system of the Eiffel Tower, a flat-screen TV, all solve some problems and fulfill some needs, real or imaginary. But a color lamp that is not bright enough to be your main light for a room? People who do not live in brothels, fish tanks or butchers’ display cases tend to have really narrow minded ideas about the color of light they like as a main light source or as a reading lamp. The possible niche would be what is known as accent lighting, an architectural conceit melodiously defined by Philips itself as

Accent Lighting provides concentrated light to spotlight an object or
area where extra attention is needed or a task has to be performed.
Accent lighting also adds drama to a room by highlighting objects. (Philips Ligthing)

And indeed Philips produces hundreds of components for accent lighting, like the excitingly macho-named eW Downlight Powercore (which sounds like a weapon out of Halo). But these are components purchased and used by architects or engineers, not consumer products. The Living Colors lamp is accent lighting with color control for consumers, who -thus far- had no desire for anything remotely like that.

Kind of like an iPod, if you think about it. Did any human ever declare I want a portable music player that talks to an online music shop! before the iPod was designed and made purchasable? So here Philips is trying to create a new desire. They envision their customers saying Oooh, look at that statue of a fisherman I bought in Curacao! Wouldn’t it look great with a green-yellow wash of light coming from bottom right? They imagine people walking out of an art gallery or a theatre, and saying hey, I could get myself two of those big LED babies and make my living room a real experience!

And I guess that it is possible for Philips to become the Apple of lighting, provided enough people convince themselves that having highly controllable color lights in their living room is desirable. After all, in the ’70s we had a word for people who wandered the streets on Sunday, oblivious to their surroundings and listening to a soccer game on a portable radio: we called them pathetic losers. Nobody thought that they were experiencing immersion in an audio-only environment or a shared media experience: they were just losers. Now we get to do something very similar every day, and we feel very cool or at least non-pathetic. 

Alternatives

Will this LivingColors cannonball of intelligence kick lighting out of the nerd domain?  It is not so clear, but let us look at the alternatives.

Actually, there are not that many comparable alternatives. Artemide makes an impeccable (of course!) suspension halogen called Nur ("light" in Arabic) with three colored sources. I have seen it priced at above 2000 USD, and it uses 150 W HIE sources with color filters: in brief, it costs about twenty times as much, uses about one hundred times the power and makes probably fifty times more light.

Unfortunately, since Artemide too decided to build its website as a
screaming mass of Flash, it is impossible for me to link to the product
page. Additionally, Google will not find anything on this site, but
will helpfully point you to various regional distributors of Artemide
things. Way to go people! You have really nailed this Internet
marketing and company presence thing! Should you feel like you want less heat dispersion and power consumption, Carlotta de Bevilacqua designed (again for Artemide) this other spaceship like object called Yang Touch. It uses fluorescent lamps and it looks damn good – I like this type of in your face technology. Also for the low low price of 2000 Euros.

At the opposite end of the price spectrum, you find LED light sources based on numerous not very bright LEDs packaged on a board. The STAIRVILLE LED PAR 56 is a good example, using 152 LEDs and featuring also a DMX controller and a serious-looking theatrical-style enclosure. It is being sold for less than 40 Euros online. But it looks really terrible, so it isn’t a very comparable alternative. 

 


 

NB: most of the photos included in the article have been grabbed from online Philips and Artemide  material

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6 comments

To open the remote, slide the catch at the back then poke a hair clip through the hole to push the romote out.

That took me half an hour to figure out!

Could someone please give away the trick to open this remote, I’m going crazy on it and can’t use the lamp anymore 🙁

The remote is one of those things that have a trick to them. Once you find the trick, opening it is very easy. Recently I realized that I needed to change the batteries, but I had forgotten the trick – 15 minutes of hilariour cursing and nail breaking followed.

opening the remote is a PAIN in the ass….. Don’t like the remote 1 bit. STILL couldn’t open it up. The lamp is great though

Don’t buy this lamp as like everything from Philips nowadays it will fail very soon after purchase. Im my case the green LED died after barely one month after purchase. Unfortunately I can’t go through warranty as I’ve bought it abroad and at Philips they localise warranties. Sad but 100GBP have gone into sink. Oh well, I still got colors but between red and blue only (e.g. fuchsia).

Nice (extensive) review! Personally I can do without the comments about the companies’ Flash pages, but then again, maybe it’s good to keep telling them. I definitely ‘concur’ with your analysis of the packaging and the plasticky stock-photos: horrible… However, on the whole I’m thinking about buying it: I’m curious what it would do to my home…

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