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The Color of Cool
By: Andrew Raskin 
Issue: November 2002

Why does so much tech gear suddenly glow blue?

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It was the light. I tell people I chose to buy a Volkswagen New Beetle over the Toyota (TM) Rav4 because of the better gas mileage, but that's only partly true. What really hooked me was what I saw radiating from the instrument panel: the ethereal glow of cobalt blue.

I'm aware that blue is having one of its periodic surges in mass appeal. The country's hottest airline calls itself JetBlue (JBLU). PepsiCo (PEP) recently introduced the Windex-tinted soft drink Pepsi Blue. The Pantone Color Institute -- which forecasts color trends -- declared blue the "color of the millennium."

What's really caught my eye, though, is how more of the high-tech gear that used to glow red or yellowish green is now luminescing cerulean. The latest Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Pavilion laptop flickers blue as it accesses its hard drive. The keys of a Samsung SPH-A460 cell phone cast an azure glow. Sony's (SNE) Playstation 2 has a blue-lit eject button. This outbreak of cyanophilia among high-tech manufacturers makes perfect sense to Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute: Blue really pops next to the black and silver materials they like to use.

Norelco's high-end Spectra 8890XL casts a blue light.

But why so much blue now? Science, it turns out, holds part of the answer. I've always assumed that behind every power-indicator lamp and backlit display is a tiny incandescent light with a colored filter over it. Wrong. In just about any electronic device made since the 1970s, the blinking and glowing emanates from a light-emitting diode, or LED, a semiconductor that sends out a fixed wavelength of light as a small current of electricity passes through it. The early ones glowed red and were popular in calculators and digital watches. Then came green. But for decades, no one could figure out how to make a blue one bright enough to work in consumer devices.

The keypad of Samsung's SPH-A460 cell phone is illuminated by a blue LED.

That changed in 1993 when Shuji Nakamura, a researcher at Japan's Nichia Corp., used gallium nitride to create the elusive color radiating at a wavelength of 470 nanometers. "When I first saw it, I remember thinking, 'What a pretty color,'" Nakamura says. Now the director of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Center for Solid State Lighting and Displays, he received a bonus of only about $165 from his company for the invention.

Others were quick to put the blue LED to more profitable use. Using it in combination with red and green LEDs, product designers could for the first time create any color, including white light. Blue light made possible new products like the giant, multimillion-dollar Times Square video displays and long-lasting flashlights. Building on the blue-light technology, Nakamura went on to invent the blue-violet laser, which, because its narrow wavelength can pick up densely packed bits of data, led to the development of next-generation, high-capacity DVDs. But because blue LEDs were expensive -- $3 each vs. just pennies for red and green -- they made sense only for big-ticket items. As it turned out, the audio industry was just waiting for blue LEDs. Audio equipment manufacturer Krell Industries was among the first to stick blue lights in amplifiers costing well over $6,500.

Intentionally or not, Krell and others were capitalizing on an association between blue and high-end audio that dates back to 1923. In that year, product inspectors at German radiomaker Ideal began to daub a blue dot on earphones that met their standards. The mark became so identified with quality that in 1938 the company changed its name to Blaupunkt -- literally, blue dot.

Blue got another image boost in the 1960s, when McIntosh Labs, a top-of-the-line stereo components maker in Binghamton, N.Y., hired University of Michigan researchers to find out what color of light is most visible to middle-age males, the company's core demographic. Blue, they said, and McIntosh began putting blue-tinted faceplates on its pricey units.

Eventually blue's associations with quality filtered down from obsessed audiophiles to ordinary electronics buyers. "Consumers associate blue light with high-end gear," confirms Ray Weikel, the Logitech director of product marketing responsible for putting blue lights in the company's computer speakers. "Our engineers lusted after blue LEDs for a long time," he says.

So that's really the answer. The appeal of blue lights is less about science than about branding. Like the Romans' imperial purple that was made at great cost from mollusk glands, blue light is so attractive because it is unavailable to the masses. It feeds off the same aura of exclusivity as a Fendi F on a handbag or a jaguar on a car hood.

How long can blue shine brightly in the $2.4 billion LED market? More efficient techniques for manufacturing gallium nitride LEDs are pushing the price of blue ones as low as 30 cents, says Robert Steele, director of optoelectronics at market research firm Strategies Unlimited. But the complexity of working with the compound means blue LEDs are still more than 10 times as expensive as the other colors. Any further price drop might well break the spell. At that point, blue could be everywhere, even in the cheapest toys and gadgets. Once it's ubiquitous, blue light will, like Members Only jackets and getting paged in public, lose its luster.

I can see it coming. Already, London-based Gizmotronics will convert a cell phone's backlit display from boring old green to blue for about $60.

For the same price, the company offers orange, purple, and a really hot peppermint green -- which, I have to say, is growing on me.

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