Just as consumers are warming up to idea of LED bulbs usurping good old-fashioned Edisons, another challenger seems poised to join the mix. 

In December leading lighting manufacturer Acuity Brands introduced a line of OLED lighting products intended for the broader public in the form of two flat panel fixtures: the petal-shaped Chalina and the Aeden, a rectangular minimalist design. Both are now available on Home Depot’s Web site as well as at select stores, starting at $199.

Coming off as more art installation than a solution for the home, designers love them for their aesthetic versatility. But for everyone else, these flat sheets of light have long been viewed as a bit fringe, as mysterious as they are radiant, even to those who’ve actually heard of the technology.

To shed some light on OLEDs, here’s a primer on an idea that some experts believe will revolutionize how we see living spaces.

What is OLED lighting? 

Organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs are similar to LEDs in that they’re comprised of semiconductor material sandwiched between two electrodes. But while LEDs use a blue semiconductor diode combined with yellow phosphor to produce light, OLEDs combine thin layers of red, green, and blue film to emit a softer white light. OLEDs can also be laid onto a variety of flexible and rigid surfaces, such as glass, metal or plastic, to create a light source that radiates along a broader area rather than from a single point.

Is OLED lighting better than LED?

It depends. OLED lighting still has a lot of ground to make up when compared to popular alternatives such as LED, which offers twice the energy efficiency and at a fraction of the cost. Fashioned as light bulbs, LEDs emit a more concentrated light that travels across longer distances. Spaces where LEDs perform well include high ceilings, a tall stairwell or wherever a spotlight is needed. 

OLEDs are known for producing the kind of high quality illumination that more closely resembles natural sunlight, though many high-end LEDs have been able to achieve this. OLED also tends to be superior at bringing out the true colors of surroundings, such as furniture and nearby objects. Its rating on the color rendering index, a measure of how well a light source performs in this regard, is consistently above 90. The maximum score is 100 (sunlight).   

Another major advantage OLEDs have over LEDs is its panel-shaped form factor, which allows for a more even distribution over a wider space without the need for additional components to scatter the light. And as a low intensity, diffuse light source, there’s very little of the glare and harsh shadowing that you might get with single point lighting. 

The effect, as Acuity Brands marketing director Jeannine Fisher Wang describes it, is that “faces will look more pleasant and colors will pop when seen under an OLED.”  

Can OLED technology someday be used to replace light bulbs?

The short answer is no. Adapting the technology for a smaller fixture, such as a bulb, requires increasing the amount of light from a single diode and would cause the various elements, which are very sensitive heat, to degrade. With these limitations, an OLED as a replacement light bulb would be insufficient in most cases.

Another important distinction is that the panel themselves, which start at about 10×10 centimeters, aren’t analogous to replacement bulbs. For instance, an OLED desk lamp would require about three panels to emit the same amount of brightness as ones you’d find at a local IKEA. However, each panel can be swapped out and replaced whenever necessary.

Where can OLED lighting panels really shine?

OLED lighting products can really make a difference in tight spots where it’s desirable to observe see more detail. This includes desk lamp lighting, different kinds of workstations or under cabinet lighting. Being relatively cool to the touch, OLEDS can also be positioned close to where people sit, such as above the kitchen counter. 

Analyst Lisa Pattison of independent consulting firm Solid State Lighting Services says a good rule of thumb is that OLEDs should be utilized to “fill in the space” where a main light source isn’t distributing light very well.

The ambient nature of OLED lighting also makes it well-suited for decorative lighting, in particular chandeliers and wall lighting. Wang adds: “More potential applications for OLED will be realized as lighting and interior designers discover new ways to integrate the technology into various environments that can take advantage of its unique qualities.”

But why is it so expensive? 

You can call it the $1,000 question. That’s about how much it costs to manufacture an OLED that generates 1,000 lumens, which is similar to the amount of light you’d get from a 100-watt light bulb. To achieve the same with LED, it costs roughly $10. Among the several factors that contribute to the relatively high price tag is a factory process that, compared to LED, requires much more material, which already tends to be more costly. Factor in the fact that manufacturing techniques for OLEDs are still fairly imprecise, which results in a lot of defective units, and the costs that need to be recouped can add up.

Even so, production costs have dropped sharply compared to only a few years ago. In 2011, a panel that generated light equivalent to a 75-watt incandescent bulb sold for about $2,560. Today, the Acuity Brands Chalina fixture, which has an output similar to that of a 25 watt incandescent bulb (345 lumens), sells for $300 at Home Depot

Pattison credits a switch to cheaper materials, along with advances in assembly that have reduced the amount of materials wasted, for the reduction in costs. But to compete in the broader marketplace, she estimates that the expenses for making OLEDs need to dip to about $100 per 1,000 lumens. She predicts that the technology can get there by as early as five years from now if the industry continues to work aggressively toward such a goal.

What should I expect from OLED in the near future?

Companies that dabble in OLED lighting believe the technology is capable of a lot more than simply brightening up certain areas. Back in May, Acuity Brands unveiled Nomi Luminaire, an OLED light fixture that featured a variation with bendable bar-type panels that conformed into curved sconces (wall-mounted fixtures). And behind the scenes, major players in the OLED game such as Konica Minolta and Mitsubishi have shown off prototypes of OLED panels capable of flashing various colors. Meanwhile, Siemens has talked up the possibility of transparent window-style panels.

How will OLED change my life?

Emerging technologies are usually too expensive and impractical for those who aren’t affluent early adopters types. So it’s unlikely that we’ll see a huge influx of OLED lighting products arriving at local retail shops in the next few years. But as products are rigorously refined and as costs continue to come down, OLEDs may bring about a transition to a world beyond light bulbs. 

“Lighting is someday going to be more than lighting,” says Morgan Pattison, who’s also an analyst at Solid State Lighting Services. “We’ll soon get all this additional functionality and that’s obviously going to require a bit of a learning curve for consumers to figure out the best way to outfit their spaces, which can be frustrating. 

“But,” he added, “it’s beautiful, you can do a lot more and when you consider the environmental benefits, it’s worth it.”