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By: Mike Ransdell
Ihor Lys boarded a flight in Pittsburgh with an oversized backpack stuffed with 68 pounds of light fixtures. His destination was Las Vegas, where he hoped to strike it rich—or at least recoup some of the $40,000 in credit card debt he and his business partner, George Mueller, had amassed.
Although the 15 canister-like fixtures made for a hefty carry-on, Lys (a Carnegie Mellon PhD student) and Mueller (E'93) couldn't risk them getting lost or roughed up in baggage claim. On top of the $40,000 in expenses, they had invested more than a year's worth of work creating the lights, from designing the specs to putting them together one by one atop a cramped coffee table in Lys' off-campus Shadyside apartment. In fact, just to be safe, Mueller flew from Boston to Las Vegas with his own jumbo-sized backpack, loaded down with the other 15 lights they built.
What lured them to Las Vegas was the 1997 Lighting Dimensions International (LDI) event, billed as "the leading U.S. tradeshow and conference for live design professionals." Along with Lys and Mueller, about 400 companies would be on hand showing off the latest product lines in light and sound technology.
The product line of Lys and Mueller was in their backpack—light fixtures that used tiny light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and, theoretically, could crank out enough colored light to set aglow a Broadway stage, a hotel lobby, a corporate boardroom, or any other space that needed to attract attention or have some ambiance. Their lights could be programmed to flash or fade from purple to pink to any one of 16.7 million different colors.
It wasn't that LEDs were revolutionary. They had been around since the 1960s, used primarily in appliances and electronics to light up things like tiny red "on" buttons on stoves or numbers in calculators—small things that just needed to glow rather than give off bright light. And it wasn't that people didn't recognize the advantages of LEDs over conventional forms of lighting—super-efficient, never burn out, much more durable than glass. It was just that no one had quite perfected a way to affordably ramp up their output so LEDs could be used for, well, light.
That is, until Lys and Mueller came along.
They had come up with the idea a year earlier, when they exhibited at their first LDI tradeshow in 1996. At that conference, they brought along a signage lighting product that used LEDs. They hoped to find some buyers, but Lys says they were also eager to simply find some "inspiration" by seeing what other companies were working on.
When their signage failed to light up the sales ledger, they walked around, browsing through the different products. They couldn't help but notice that there was a glut of new technologies focused on squeezing out the greatest amount of performance from small, colored lights. Interestingly, those products were using conventional forms of lighting to do it—fluorescents, halogens, or incandescents—not LEDs. A light bulb turned on in their heads when they made that observation.
Both had studied the latest advances in digital technology as engineering students at Carnegie Mellon. With that knowledge, they were confident they could use existing technology to create a more powerful, more practical colored light—a sort of LED on steroids, strong enough to bathe a hotel lobby with a warm blue or light up a dance floor with fiery reds, yellows, and oranges while bouncing to the beat of a sweaty mix.(Continued …)