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Recent startling interest for lanthanide luminescence is stimulated by the continuously expanding need for luminescent materials meeting the stringent requirements of telecommunication, lighting, electroluminescent devices, (bio-)analytical sensors and bio-imaging set-ups. This critical review describes the latest developments in (i) the sensitization of near-infrared luminescence, (ii) ‘‘soft’’ luminescent materials (liquid crystals, ionic liquids, ionogels), (iii) electroluminescent materials for organic light emitting diodes, with emphasis on white light generation, and (iv) applications in luminescent bio-sensing and bio-imaging based on time-resolved detection and multiphoton excitation (500 references).