Shedding some light on smart lightbulbs

We’ve been putting up with a broken pendant light above our kitchen table now for a few days. We have two, equally spaced lights hanging from the kitchen ceiling, and the other day one of the bulbs stopped working. So much for long-life LEDs. I have a good stock of extra lightbulbs, just not that exact kind. I should have known that a standard lightbulb just wouldn’t do, right? And of course, our local store doesn’t carry that particular model. Which is why we are still illuminating the kitchen cyclops-style, with just one pendant working. Being a positive kind of person, I’m focussing on the romantic touch of the dim glow.

Then again, what is the standard, anyway? I was in the supermarket recently, stocking up on extra lightbulbs (just, as I said, not the right kind), and I found the selection thoroughly confusing. Different wattages, the round or the curly, pointy, flat, halogen, led… 4200K, 2700K, 15W, 20W… I felt like a 10-year-old trying to make sense of algebra.

So I decided to try to shed some light on the subject (sorry). I had seen smart lightbulbs mentioned in the press occasionally, but I confess, in spite of my fascination for the Internet of Things, I had never actually read the articles. Now I have, and this is what I now know…

ilumi smartbulbs

That it’s even more confusing still. Confusing, but exciting, and it seems like new innovations are appearing every other week. I can’t wait for the dust to settle and start using the things.

So what is a smart lightbulb? A lightbulb that you can control from your smartphone. You turn them on and off from your screen, you can dim them, in many you can control the tone (warm light? cool?) or even the colour. They can also be pre-scheduled to switch on an off at certain times, to welcome you, wake you up, or make it look like you’re home when you’re not.

Not just a light, no sir

Some, like Stack’s Alba, respond to the light levels in the room (automatically adjusting), noise (turning on if there’s a commotion), movement (it knows when you’ve walked in), time of day (it can be used as a luminous, silent alarm clock), mood (changing from white light to warm light). Misfit’s Bolt integrates with your sleep trackers to know at which point in your REM cycle to turn on. Oh, and you can choose from millions of colours for just the right ambience. Or, choose a combination of tones that replicate the atmosphere in a certain photo.

misfit bolt

Sengled’s Boost is a lightbulb and a wifi repeater in one, and costs less than the wifi repeater I installed in my home office a few months ago. The Snap (also by Sengled) is not only a lightbulb but also a camera, microphone, facial recognition and motion sensor in one. That’s kind of freaky. On the one hand, it’s unlikely that a burglar is going to be squinting at your lightbulbs looking for a webcam. On the other, it’s disconcerting to know that you could be watched in your own home by a hacker or a sinister landlord.

Sengled, MiPow and Lightfreq make speaker lightbulbs. Yes, lightbulbs that are also Bluetooth speakers for your music, podcasts or whatever. They can reproduce playlists, or stream online, and some can also act as an intercom, so you can talk to a room even when you’re not at home. That won’t be weird at all. And with Lightfreq, the music will follow you when you leave one room and walk into another. Now you know what to get for that friend who has everything…

Beam is both a lightbulb and a projector. With speakers, of course. It can project whatever is on your phone to any flat surface. Which could, when you think about it, revolutionise office space. Or home entertainment.

Beam

The field is getting crowded: Phillips, Osram, Belkin, Cree, Misfit, TCP, LIFX, Avea, Ilumi, SMFX, General Electric, Lümen, Lumini, Stack, Emberlight (more a smart socket than a smart lightbulb), Lightfreq, mimoodz… There’s even a website that just reviews smartbulbs, called (you guessed it) SmartbulbReviews.com. Some bulbs require a hub to work, others don’t. Some connect easily, others don’t. Some lightbulbs have geofencing capability, which means that when you are almost home, or approaching your front door, the lights turn on without you having to do anything at all. How do they know? They track the location of your phone.

Next step?

The potential for interaction with wearables is interesting. It could extend the geofencing that we talked about earlier by detecting proximity and turning on and off accordingly (useful if you live alone, probably annoying if you don’t.) Soon you will be able to turn Misfit’s Bolt bulb on and off by simply tapping the Misfit activity tracker on your wrist. Some smartbulb manufacturers are working on watch apps which allow you to activate the light by swiping.

The potential for data collection is huge, as there are generally more bulbs in any given space than other “connected” gadgets. Stack already has sensors incorporated into their wiring. It’s a small step to collect movement data, activity levels, behaviour patterns… Combine smartbulb apps with other apps (using If This Then That, for example) and your lights can tell you what the weather is outside, when you’ve been tagged in Facebook, what the main colour tone is in the latest photo in your Instagram feed, which team won the football game (by changing colour to their logo), when your kids have fallen asleep…

What happens if you lose your smartphone? It wouldn’t leave you in the dark, the lights can be turned on and off with the traditional switch. No playing with the colours or intensity, though, and if it’s off at source, your app controls won’t work. I have been wondering how it would work for multi-person household in which more than one person wants to control the ambience. Could there be a market for “dedicated” smartphones just for gadget control, that never leave the front hall table?

avea lightbulb

Worth it?

The smartbulbs sound amazingly flexible, and the cool factor is through the roof. But, let’s face it, opening an app to control your lighting is nowhere near as easy as flipping a switch. Why fuss with several taps when simply pressing a button on the wall will do? And let’s assume that everything connects automatically and there’s no connection outages.

Is this a fad? Will the connectivity hassle overcome the cool factor? I think not. Our mindset is changing. No longer do we just accept the off-the-shelf technology, now we want to configure and control our tools. Personalization is everything, and that mindset will be hard to dislodge. Before long, very soon in fact, traditional, simple on-off lightbulbs will seem primitive, and the shrinking difference in price between connected lightbulbs and normal LED bulbs will make the decision to go smart even easier. The technology will continue to improve, and we probably will see dedicated Internet of Things controllers replace the smartphone as the control of choice.

And, the economics look good. Yes, these bulbs are more expensive than traditional ones – generally ranging from between $20 to $400. But the energy savings are significant, and assuming that the bulb lasts even just half of what the manufacturers say, they will pay for themselves. Which means less bulb shopping. Which sounds like a very good thing to me. And, the overall reduction in energy consumption as this rolls out across the developed world could end up having a material impact on, well, just about everything.

And now for the joke: How many people does it take to screw in a smart lightbulb? One, but he or she’s going to need to be pretty smart themselves.

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