For anyone who has ever fought to stay awake in a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm while wishing for a glimpse of daylight, a new dynamic ceiling brings Big Sky country indoors.

German researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart designed a luminous ceiling that looks just like clouds moving over a sunny sky. The ceiling is made from 20-inch square tiles that each have a board containing nearly 300 LEDs. These red, blue, green, and white lights in combination make millions of hues. The LEDs are all hidden under a diffuser to make the light spread out evenly.

Replicating the impression that clouds are moving over your desk could go from a natural inspiration to an annoyance, so the Fraunhofer group did a series of studies to find out what worked the best.

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"The lighting might distract people from their work," Matthias Bues, the head of Fraunhofer's visual technologies department said in an announcement about the project. "But it does need to fluctuate enough to promote concentration and heighten alertness."


Bues and his colleagues tried different sky scenarios on a group of 10 volunteers in a work setting. They tested a static sky for a whole day, then a gently fluctuating one, and after that a rapidly changing sky. For the final day of the study, the volunteers could control the lighting. Most chose to replicate the fast-changing, dynamic light. At that rate, maybe the desk seems like it's physically going somewhere.

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The virtual sky isn't necessarily a quick and easy ceiling tile replacement, though. For now, it costs a hefty 1,000 euros per square meter, which translates into approximately $130 per square foot. However, the research team has said they expect the price to go down and become more cost effective, especially since the system uses energy-efficient LEDs.

Currently the group has a prototype of the virtual sky containing more than 34,000 LEDs. The Fraunhofer team will be showing it off at a trade fair in Germany this March. That's just in time for spring, when cubicle farm workers everywhere will be looking for some precious daylight.

Image: Fraunhofer IAO