The windowless reception area at the Fairfield, Iowa, law offices of Foss, Kuiken, and Cochran used to be "claustrophobic." But cutting a hole in the ceiling to let in some light wasn’t an option. So last month, the firm did the next best thing: install a "Luminous SkyCeiling" to help brighten the space. Now there is a 4-by-8-foot rectangle on the ceiling that seems to be a window to a constantly blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. But the clouds don’t just make the staff and clients feel good.
There’s a scientific reason human beings are naturally drawn to the sky. Deep within the eye on the retina’s periphery sits a special light receptor called melanopsin that not only helps lift our mood; it also regulates our body clock. Unfortunately, melanopsin is most active when exposed to the sky’s blue light—not something readily available to those who log multiple hours inside an office.
But artist and serial entrepreneur Bill Witherspoon has devised a solution: A high-tech trompe l’oeil which uses backlit images and videos of the sky to make you think you’re gazing at the heavens. "It turns out," says Witherspoon, "that if we create an "illusion of nature which is sufficiently powerful, it will trigger the same kind of physiological response as is triggered by ‘real’ nature."
The 70-year-old watercolorist is the founder of the Sky Factory, a "creative business experiment" dedicated to improving its clients’ health and well-being by providing daily doses of blue magic. Launched in Fairfield, Iowa, in 2002, the Sky Factory’s modular systems are comprised of illuminated LED images available in both ceiling and wall installations. The company’s line of "SkyCeilings," for example, can be configured with different cloud formations, wildlife, as well as trees and foliage spanning the four seasons.
And the Sky Factory’s latest offering—its "Digital Cinema Line" includes the SkyV, a virtual skylight featuring HD video sequences lasting up to three hours of changing cloud patterns culminating in spectacular sunsets. Its eScape product yields virtual windows opening up to, for example, video loops of a prairie dog family frolicking in a sunlit meadow or hot air balloons drifting into the azure skies of New Mexico.
Witherspoon’s preoccupation with the great blue yonder started long before the Sky Factory. After graduating from the Portland Museum Art School and the State Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam in the 1960s, Witherspoon set out for the Oregon desert in a school bus he’d converted into an art studio. "I became convinced that the only thing I wanted to paint was the sky and I went to places where I could be alone."
But it was in the early '90s that he decided to turn his obsession into a business. "I was living in Des Moines as a full-time artist, with four kids who all needed some kind of orthodontia work and I didn’t have the money." Witherspoon succeeded in convincing an orthodontist to pay him to replace some ceiling tiles with an expansive painting of the sky.
"I thought to myself this would be a good biz, but I wouldn’t want to do it by painting. I’d have to develop a photographic process with backlighting to make it more of a real illusion." At that time, the tech wasn’t quite ready, so Witherspoon put the idea on the back burner and, like any soul-searching artist, spent several years exploring Vedic spirituality by creating a number of land art projects in Southeastern Oregon.
In 1997, he did a 180—combining his interest in the biological sciences and business by teaming up with a scientist friend to launch Genetic ID, which developed the world’s first GMO testing system. (Back in 1980 Witherspoon had founded Westbridge Research group, an "early biotech company" that helped farmers reduce their use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.)
However, Witherspoon really wanted to build a company that incorporated his artistic skills. So in 2002, after determining that the printing industry had advanced sufficiently he launched the Sky Factory—now a multi-million-dollar business with partners in 40 countries around the globe. From "one of the world’s largest computer companies" in Mexico to the French Railroad Network Operations Center in Paris, the Sky Factory is helping companies, hospitals, senior care facilities, and even residences bring a semblance of nature indoors.
But the sky is only part of the picture. It turns out that designing spaces that tap into humankind’s innate love of the natural world, known as biophilia, yields some pretty sweet benefits.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that exposure to nature, even if it’s simulated, can reduce stress, enhance well-being and even help hospital patients reduce their pain meds and heal faster. And though health care settings comprise over 70% of the Sky Factory’s business, Witherspoon says that as the significance of workplace design evolves, commercial applications are growing. Those replica skies and mountain vistas can improve productivity and satisfaction.
"We have tended to think of human beings in almost in a mechanical way. We want the workforce to be highly productive and no one to be sick. Now we’re seeing that if we give more attention to creating an environ and business culture where people can grow and enjoy themselves, we’re actually going to accomplish our goals."
That’s why one of the Sky Factory’s stated goals is to "create illusions of nature that enliven biophilia." So in addition to the many skyscapes, the company will also supply your firm with ersatz waterfalls, deserts, prairies, and seascapes including underwater glimpses at colorful tropical fish and coral formations. (Admittedly, it may feel a bit odd to see a lionfish swimming out your window, but it works!)
Can a bunch of metal, glass bits, and bytes really help cure "nature deficit disorder," the term coined by Richard Louv in 2005? One has to wonder if Witherspoon’s near-perfect creations might produce a backlash effect, keeping people from wanting to explore the real thing. It’s one thing to trick the eye—even that melanopsin sensor—but is all this imitation nature just edging us that much closer to the chilling reality of Soylent Green? The good news, at least according to Witherspoon’s informal observations, is that people who’ve been exposed to his sky windows have sought out real nature even more.
Says Witherspoon, "It doesn’t matter if it’s appreciation for the real or illusory thing. What happens next is more inclination to experience it outdoors in the real world and to take care of it." In fact, what’s unique about the Sky Factory, which earlier this month became Iowa’s first net-zero energy producer, is its "hidden agenda" to help improve the environment by getting people to value nature.
"Consider our company itself. We’ve got 40 people. Were any of them ‘lovers of the sky’ before they started? Maybe a little bit but now if you ask them ‘what is your relationship to the sky now?’ they’d say, 'These days I go outside and find myself constantly looking up.'"