This startup wants to bring sunlight indoors & make you healthier

If your home won’t fit more windows or a skylight, perhaps this is the next best thing. A startup called Sunn has developed a programmable LED light fixture that modulates light to mimic the sun’s rays throughout the day and time of year, potentially making its users feel healthier.

Sunn began as a project at Cornell University two years ago and the team has developed algorithms that control the quality and brightness of its LED light to match the season and hour. The mini sun-looking fixture brightens up in the morning when you set the wakeup time and mellows out to a yellow glow at night as you wind down to the time you’ve set for bed. It stays brighter for longer when the days of summer stretch out, and shorter during the winter months.

You can change the settings to suit your needs or desires, and you can even request to have the light change as if you were in another corner of the world. For example, you could program the light as if you were in the Bahamas even though you are in Norway on a wintry day. The technology also learns your habits and adjusts the light settings accordingly.

"Our goal is to create lighting that you wouldn’t have to think about. You install it, and it automatically figures out what it needs to give you the healthiest light possible," said Andrew Vaslas, Sunn’s chief technology officer.

So what’s the connection between lighting and health? Research shows that the amount of light a person is exposed to affects a person’s circadian rhythms, which can change hormone releases and can dictate how well a person stays awake, falls asleep and performs other functions. Disruption of these rhythms has been connected to obesity, diabetes, depression and other illnesses, according to the National Institutes of Health. Here’s something for the insomniacs to think about: too much light can reduce the production of a hormone called melatonin that helps us fall asleep.

The ability to digitally control the intensity and color of LED lighting makes the technology a good match for recreating the effect of sunlight, and doing that at a high level is a subject of research by major LED lighting makers, including Philips and Cree, both of which run websites that tout the health benefits of their LED lights. Both companies also are experimenting with lights that they believe could help hospital patients recover more quickly and comfortably.

Sunn has been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for its product launch, and it’s already exceeded the initial goal of $50,000. If it hits $90,000, then it plans to incorporate weather data into the software. That addition will create more nuanced lighting changes to resemble more closely what you would experience outdoors in real time, Vaslas said. A Sunn’s LED light will turn down slightly to reflect the passing cloud, for instance.

Hitting even higher fundraising goals will allow the startup to add features that will measure light exposure that each user experiences, based on how close he or she is to the light at different times. The system could also explain how that exposure amount might or might not help the person stay awake or fall asleep.

While LED lighting technology in general has improved tremendously in the past decade, it’s still not good enough to truly mimic the full spectrum of the sunlight. Sunn’s team has tried different LED combinations before settling on one that is pretty close, based on simulation tests, Vaslas said. He declined to disclose the makers of the LED chips or the manufacturer that will be assembling the chips and other components into the lighting fixture.

Sunn has designed the fixture to be round because, well, that’s the shape of the sun. There are two models, one with a diameter of 19 inches and another one with 24 inches. To give you a comparison, the 19-inch version is about as bright as four 60-watt incandescent bulbs. Turning on the 24-inch model is like using seven 60-watt bulbs.

The downside is that the Sunn LED lights are pretty pricy. Regular retail prices for the two models are $349 and $449, Vaslas said. Those who support the startup’s Kickstarter campaign can get those lights at a discount. If all goes well, the company will start shipping the lights in April of next year.

Because the light fixtures aren’t cheap, consumers aren’t likely to install one in every room of their homes. The bedroom and home office might be two popular spots since people spend a good amount of time in those rooms.

Long-term, Sunn would like develop its technology to target hospitals, office and other commercial buildings and add more data, such as energy consumption, as part of its service. "We’d love to build more natural experiences indoors," Vaslas said.