Fritz Morgan: LEDs Into Gold

When a Broadway show--or an office building in Hong Kong--needs a dazzling light display, who ya gonna call?

For most of its 125-year history, the lighting industry has been about as low-tech as technology gets. Until the last few years, that is, when beautiful blue, green, and purple light-emitting diodes started flooding the market and showing up in everything from traffic signals to video billboards.

Nowadays, they light up huge bridges, add pizazz to casinos, and illuminate highly stylized interior spaces. And that's just the beginning. To see how LEDs are going to be used tomorrow, you have to look to engineers like . As vice president of engineering at Color Kinetics Inc., in Boston, he has conjured up revolutionary lighting installations from Hollywood to Hong Kong.

He recalls his first day at the company, in August 1998. "We had just moved into a new warehouse space. Ihor Lys, one of the founders of the company, pointed and said, 'Your computer is somewhere over in that corner. Get yourself set up. Oh, and get yourself a ticket for New York for tomorrow. You're meeting with Sony/Loews.' "

The cinema chain, part of Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp., in New York City, wanted to erect a new kind of sign on a flagship movie theater in Times Square. It would spell out "LOEWS" vertically, six stories tall, using 534 printed-circuit boards containing nearly a quarter of a million LEDs in all. As it turned out, the project would take more than a year to complete. It had a hard deadline—the end of the year 1999, when at least 2 million people would flood into Times Square, where the famous ball-drop would mark the new millennium.

"I remember standing up in a bucket truck, 150 feet in the air—it must have been 10 degrees," Morgan recalls. "I was making the last electrical connections that would get the sign working. It was so cold, a union electrician was standing next to me with a heat gun. He'd wave it in the air near my fingers, or else they got too stiff for me to do anything."

"When we finally got the sign running, it was one of those moments that just brings goose bumps to your skin," he says. "I was so excited that I just stood in the middle of 42nd Street staring at it for 10 minutes straight, not saying a word! It was much more impressive than I ever imagined." The sign, still a fixture in Times Square, shimmers with waves of intense color, while minute white strobes flash in a seemingly random pattern from within the letters.

Morgan had a much more comfortable time of it a couple of years later and a few blocks away. Inside Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, he helped theatrical lighting designer Kenneth Posner and scenic designer David Rockwell create a backdrop for the hit musical Hairspray.

"Rockwell's company designed a grid pattern of 600 fixtures, with individual control over each one," Morgan says. They were programmed to continually change the backdrop into different patterns and shapes, each one recalling a pattern from a decades-old toy called Lite Brite. "It was a very dynamic part of the set that changed from scene to scene to create the mood of the show at that moment."

Founded in 1997, Color Kinetics was one of the first companies to combine printed-circuit boards with solid-state lighting devices. Marrying computer technology to lighting opens the door to something Color Kinetics calls "show authoring"—programming a light show on a computer and then downloading the program to a controller. The controller then plays the show back to power supplies that energize arrays of colored LEDs in dazzling sequences synchronized to music or dramatic action, or simply to alter the ambience of a room.

In turn, show authoring lets you rethink lighting—a US $79 billion global industry—entirely. Morgan has mounted radically new installations on movie marquees, at airports, on theater and television stages, and on the sides of buildings in Asia, Europe, and North America.

Nowadays, he works less on individual lighting installations and more on overseeing the company's engineering efforts in Boston, and in China, where Color Kinetics works with other titans of the LED world, such as Cree, LumiLeds Lighting, Osram, and Sylvania, to turn individual lights into programmable fixtures. In 2003, he spent fully one-third of the year in China.

An average day back in Boston finds him in the office by 6:30 a.m. and home around 6 p.m. He puts his kids to bed and then "talks to China for a couple of hours." He still gets to visit clients from time to time—to oversee, for instance, the building of a new set for Sony Pictures Television's "Wheel of Fortune" game show. But as a family man, he now leaves the bucket-truck gigs to his staff.

Electrical engineering is something Morgan was born to. His grandfather, Millett Morgan, founded the radiophysics department at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. His father, Granger, is head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. (Granger is also an IEEE Fellow and is a member of IEEE Spectrum's board of advisors.)

Fritz was also uniquely trained for the theatrical side of his job. He loved lighting up school productions in high school and college. For 10 years, he worked on school productions and community theater. He even spent a summer at the prestigious Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, in Erie, a selective program for budding theater techies and performers.

"I liked it," he says of his diverse youthful theater experience, "but I didn't see how to make a career of it. When Color Kinetics came around, I thought, 'It's technology, it's a career, it's theatrical stuff, it's artistic stuff—it's pulling it all together.' "

Morgan went to his father's school, CMU, for a master's in electrical engineering, but his undergraduate degree was a B.A. from Clark University, in Worcester, Mass. "I wanted a liberal arts education," he says. "At Clark I was able to do theater, and computer science, and geography, and history, and psychology, classes I might not have gotten to take at CMU at the time."

In high school and college, he also worked on autonomous vehicles and other robotics projects during summers spent in Pittsburgh. He returned to robotics for his master's work, done under the legendary Takeo Kanade, then director of CMU's Robotics Institute.

If the purpose of a robot is to enhance human capabilities, Morgan is still doing that at Color Kinetics.

When Morgan showed the staff of "Wheel of Fortune" the new, programmable wheel that's now the centerpiece of the long-running game show, the show's lighting designer couldn't contain her excitement. "She told me the wheel could now do things she'd been dreaming about it doing," Morgan says. Then she gave him a big hug.

To Probe Further

Some of the lighting installations developed by Fritz Morgan, and many others as well, are described at Color Kinetics’ Web site, see http://colorkinetics.com/showcase/. IEEE Spectrum has covered LED technology extensively since the early 1990s. Recently, we profiled Nick Holonyak Jr., winner of the 2003 IEEE Medal of Honor and father of the visible laser diode in ”Red Hot,”

In addition, gallium nitride LEDs were one of five featured technologies in IEEE Spectrum’s September 2002 special report, ”They Might Be Giants. See "Let There Be Light,"

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