Solving the technical challenges of creating lighting systems that “breathe”

LRC RPI lighting technology breathing lights

When Breathing Lights lead artist Adam Frelin and lead architect Barbara Nelson sought to enliven hundreds abandoned buildings in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady by making them “breathe” using interior lights of shifting, dynamic brightness, they approached the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to solve the technical challenges of making their concept a reality.

LRC graduate students Charlie Jarboe, Kassandra Gonzales, Dinusha Thotagamuwa, Zachary Pearson, and Elise Benedict, created the working prototype illumination kits that would eventually be replicated and installed in each window of the homes illuminated for Breathing Lights. The students collaborated with the project team in the development of the lighting controls, tested light-diffusing materials, experimented with different color temperatures of light, evaluated and proposed power sources, procured materials, and installed their working prototype in a vacant building owned by the university. Charlie Jarboe and LRC research specialist Martin Overington later continued to work with the project team to finalize the breathing light effect and its components.

The illumination kits consist of miniature LED light strips affixed to a frame with white light-diffusing material on both sides, which is then placed into the window opening. The LEDs used in the Breathing Lights project are warm 3000 K correlated color temperature.

The LED lights were then programmed to give the breathing effects. The control modules are Arduino microcontrollers with a 12-bit shield to provide high resolution pulse-width modulation, a technique used in dimming LED lights using a digital signal, which was sent to the 12-amp amplifier connected to the LED light strips. Arduino is an inexpensive, open-source electronics board and software program developed to make electronics more accessible to artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. LRC research specialist Greg Ward came up with the program code for the breathing effects.

The LRC provided all the pre-wired programmed control boards and training on the wiring of the houses. The LED light strips were then installed into the 1,500 frames built by the SEAT Center.

“It has been a privilege working on this project, to help breathe life back into these communities using light,” said Overington.