On paper, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are a designer’s dream. Thin, flat, cool, diffuse, and nearly glare-free, the modular light panels can be used to form fixtures or be embedded in walls, furniture, and even textiles. But an OLED-only future is unlikely—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), OLED panels currently cost an average of $500 per thousand lumens, or kilolumen (klm). To be commercially viable, that figure would need to decrease to $20 per klm by 2020, the DOE says. That’s compared to LEDs, which according to DOE figures are expected to cost $2 per klm by 2015, having dropped from $18 per klm in 2010.

Recently, Architectural Lighting spoke with OLED experts to get their take on the leading drivers and impediments to this diffuse light source’s adoption. Though cost and performance remain the leading barriers, the experts cited another hurdle that, in tackling, they think can help make OLEDs marketable: lack of exposure among designers. To turn that around, the lighting industry is developing new fixtures and furthering research and development that will help lighting designers and architects better understand where OLEDs fit in as a lighting option, and where they don’t.

“We have to get people to understand that OLEDs are not a factor today but [they will be] tomorrow, so try to learn what you can do with OLEDs so that you are prepared when [they do come to] market,” says Dietmar Thomas, Philips’ manager of brand and integrated communications for OLED.

Here’s a snapshot of where OLEDs stand in the market today:

Big-Box Bargains
In December,  Acuity Brands announced that it would begin selling two OLED fixture families in the U.S. through the Home Depot’s online store and in select locations starting in early 2015. The luminaires, says Jeannine Fisher Wang, director of business development and marketing for Acuity Brands’ OLED Business Group, are meant to “explore the creative aspects of OLED” in residential spaces while giving consumers an easily installed “luminaire-in-a-box.” Offered in a pendant and a sconce, the Aedan luminaire comes in 3000K and offers 68 lumens per panel. Chalina, which is available as a pendant, a sconce, or a ceiling-mounted fixture with five panels per module, comes in 3000K with a total output of 345 lumens. Both fixture lines are  currently retailing online from $199 to $299.

Aedan Pendant
Acuity Brands Aedan Pendant

Taking on Tasklights 
Acuity Brands isn’t alone in creating consumer-focused OLED fixtures, in part due to the lighting industry’s recognized need to get the technology into end users’ hands. But the forms that these initial fixtures are taking reflects OLED’s current scale, says Michael Helander, president and CEO at Toronto startup  OTI Lumionics, which develops OLEDs for lighting and displays and is piloting the manufacture of panels for small-scale, small-volume projects. Current OLED performance, coupled with the technology’s cost, suits a smaller form factor, he says. Plus, decorative tasklights are ubiquitous. The company’s  Aerelight, which was borne from the desire to test its OLED research and development with consumers, offers a thin form factor, 2900K, and consumes 7W.

OTI Lumionics Aerelight

OLEDs are also being used for custom lighting solutions. Bruno Dussert-Vidalet, co-founder of French OLED maker  Blackbody, argues that while the production and sale of consumer-grade fixtures are “a way to stimulate the market,” the essence of the technology is in its ability to be customized. “OLED is a greenfield,” he says. “It’s not an evolution of technology. It’s a new way to light your home and the space.” The company’s 5,382-square-foot showroom in New York City, which opened in the fall of 2013, shows the myriad ways in which OLEDs can be used to illuminate or accent a space. But for all its whimsy, even Blackbody offers replicable designs. Its  Flying Ribbon, which was designed in February 2012 for use in a corporate client’s conference room, features a pre-designed configuration that the company has since used as a blueprint when iterating the product for other spaces. “Your ribbon can be adapted [not only] to your space but also to your budget and your taste,” he says. The fixture measures 12 feet long by 1.2 feet wide, and provides 2750K to 4000K with a CRI of 80.

Flying Ribbon
Blackbody OLED Flying Ribbon

Better-Performing Panels
Panel makers are pushing for OLEDs to reach performance levels (and panel sizes) suitable for general illumination— according to the DOE, current OLED panels offer efficacies of 60 lumens per watt and CRIs greater than 90. Karsten Diekmann, senior manager of marketing, product and application engineering for  Osram’s OLED business, explains that the company’s first generation of Orbeos OLED panels, introduced in 2009, had a light output of 25 lumens per watt with a brightness of 1,000 candelas/m2. Today, Osram makes OLEDs, such as the Orbeos SDW-058+ panel (shown above), at 65 lumens per watt and 3,000 candelas/m2.

Orbeos OLED Panel
Osram Sylvania Orbeos OLED Panel

There’s still work to do, however. OLEDs need to be able to compete performance-wise with LEDs. “When OLEDs reach 100 lumen-per-watt values, they get really attractive for general lighting applications,” Diekmann says. “Such values have been presented on the R&D level and need to be transferred into production.”

This past fall, Seoul-based LG Chem announced that it had developed a 100-lumen-per-watt panel that will be commercially available in April, helping OLEDs enter the general illumination space, said Chang-Hoon Jeong, head of marketing for the company’s OLED light division, in an email. In January, the company followed up on that news with the debut of a widely available 0.88-millimeter-thick, 320-millimeter-by-320-millimeter panel offering 60 lumens per watt with a CRI of 90-plus. The company also announced that it had developed a flexible OLED using a plastic substrate and, it claims, without diminishing either efficacy, luminance, or CRI. “Due to our experience in barrier and encapsulation techniques, it was possible to achieve the same [performance] level [as with a glass substrate], even with a plastic substrate,” Jeong says.

Nomi OLED Sconce
Acuity Brands/Winona Lighting Nomi OLED Sconce

New Faces
Today, OLEDs are primarily decorative—due to their small scale and limited uptake—but that could soon change. Philips’ Thomas and others suggest a future for embedded OLEDs in applications including undercabinet lighting and retail displays. Later this year, Philips expects to launch its Brite FL300 L, which offers 300 lumens from a lit area measuring about 8.7 inches long by 1.8 inches wide. The product is a longer, more slender version of the company’s 3000K, 4.7-inch-square  Brite FL300 ww, which offers up to 50 lumens per watt. Acuity’s Wang says that the forthcoming Nomi family of OLED sconces from Acuity Brands/Winona Lighting, which was previewed at Lightfair 2014 and will come to market this spring, features a bendable glass substrate that helps achieve its contemporary form. And LG Chem says it plans to showcase an OLED track fixture in the coming months. By designing luminaires that show off what OLEDs can do, manufacturers hope to awaken lighting designers, architects, and even consumers to the technology’s potential. “One OLED panel doesn’t really generate a lot of light,” Wang says. “It’s hard for people to visualize that you can, in fact, light a whole room using an OLED lighting system. It’s kind of wrapping your mind around some different possibilities.”