Smart lighting technology is on a high! From Internet-connected lights and 3D-printed light emitting diode (LED) optics to light-emitting electrochemical cells and hybrid organic-inorganic LEDs, there is no end to tech innovations in this space. Mind-boggling applications are also being demonstrated and deployed around the world, such as age-specific lighting at retirement homes, supportive lighting at healthcare centres and smart lighting to improve acoustic comfort at opera houses, to enhance the appeal of exhibits at art workshops and deepen devotion at chapels
Across the world, local municipalities are working out how smart lighting can help save energy for their communities, with some having even adopted such solutions. In India too, Philips Lighting, together with the Climate Group, demonstrated to municipal corporations in Kolkata how they could reduce urban emissions and save energy from street lighting. The team showed that LED lighting consumes about 40 to 50 per cent less energy as compared to conventional sodium vapour lamps, and if fitted with smart adaptive controls, the savings could be even higher, in the range of 70 to 80 per cent. Around 300 street lights in the city were then retro-fitted with Philips Roadstar LED streetlights.
While the use of smart lighting products in specialised environments and other public spaces is justified by the savings and other benefits, for a home user it still appears to be a costly proposition. The availability of simple, easy-to-install individual smart light bulbs for home users is also quite low as compared to larger solutions. When users compare the $50+ cost of installing a smart light bulb with the cost of installing an ordinary light bulb, the choice is clearly in favour of the latter, unless they have a very pressing need for smart lighting. Players in the consumer lighting industry are working to bring down the cost but, by the well-known rules of the market, prices can come down drastically only if there is mass-adoption. There sets in a vicious cycle!
Nevertheless, we do see quite a few connected, smart lighting consumer products popping up in international markets, and hope to see this segment grow in India too, in the near future. If you are wondering how a smart light could pep up your home, may be a description of some such products will give you a few nice ideas.
Philips Hue: Costly but exciting start to smart lighting
At close to $200, the Philips Hue connected bulb starter kit does seem a bit overpriced. However, for that price you get three Zigbee based LED light bulbs and a Hue router, which mediates between the bulbs and your home Wi-Fi network. Philips’ kit is positioned as a dynamic and capable system, which despite being very simple for beginners is also highly-programmable for those who wish to do more with it.
All you have to do is connect the Hue, fit the bulbs into the sockets and install an app on your mobile phone. The dots join by themselves, and you are ready to remotely control-and-schedule the colour, brightness and other features of your smart bulbs. With extended features like geo-fencing and if-this-then-that (IFTTT), you can tune the system to your specific needs, like, for example, make the bulb in your kitchen blink when the oven timer strikes zero or set the study-room light to change colour when an email arrives in your inbox. If you are not much into programming, you can wait for somebody else to upload an app that matches your needs, because Philips has allowed third-parties to develop apps for Hue.
iLumi: An Indian mind at work
In June this year, iLumi Solutions received a patent from the United States Patent Office for their wireless lighting control system. Interestingly, iLumi, the award-winning, app-controlled LED bulb has an Indian mind behind it. In 2010, Swapnil Bora and Corey Egan, classmates at Naveen Jindal School of Management, University of Texas at Dallas, presented the concept at their college’s annual Business Idea Competition. Their idea topped the charts and, with the prize money of $5000, iLumi was born!
The iLumi system is simpler than the Philips one because you do not need a hub with it. Just fit the bulb, install the app and you are ready to go. iLumi bulbs, which have a life of up to 20 years, offer bright and efficient multi-colour light with what the company calls HyperLux LED technology. Each iLumi bulb has Bluetooth classic and Bluetooth low-energy (Bluetooth 4.0) built-in, along with a processor, memory and real-time clock.
With the mobile app, users can adjust, customise, program and schedule one or multiple iLumi bulbs. An iLumi bulb can recognise whether you are in the room or not and adjust lighting accordingly. It can also waver in sync with music or alert you of important information such as weather, news updates, stock price movements, phone calls or email messages!
LIFX: Colours life bright
Sometimes you just want something like, say, the good-old phone. Less features, but good at what it does! If that is what you expect of your smart bulb too, then LIFX is likely to be your choice.
The diodes in each LIFX bulb are capable of achieving a full spectrum of natural tones at up to 1000 lumens. ‘16 million colours at your fingertips,’ is what the company claims. Generally, in coloured bulbs, the peak brightness is achieved by white, while the colours are much dimmer. With LIFX, you can add white light on top of the coloured light, which results in a full spectrum of tinted light to work with. LIFX bulbs consume 17 watts of energy and have a life of around 27 years. It is a bit heavier than its counterparts because it has a built-in heat sink.
Each bulb comes with in-built Wi-Fi capability, so it can communicate directly with your smartphone and be controlled with the LIFX app. You can comfortably control around 50 bulbs with the app, so LIFX can be considered for ambient lighting in larger spaces, too.
Professional reviewers laud LIFX for its great hardware, but claim it is not smart enough yet, as the app has minimal features. While you can remotely control the bulb, vary the hue and brightness, and achieve all the basics comfortably, the app supposedly lacks advanced scheduling and other such features. That said, the company does seem to be updating its offering with features like automatic brightening and dimming of light when you wake up or drift-off to sleep.
WeMo smart LED bulbs: From home-automation experts
Coming from Belkin, which has a strong background in easy-to-use home-automation products, WeMo smart LED bulbs are rich in features, as expected. The setup is very similar to the Philips system, with Zigbee-powered LED light bulbs, a WeMo Link hub that mediates between the bulbs and your Wi-Fi network, and a smartphone app.
Like the products seen earlier, the app lets you remotely control, schedule and program your bulbs. One of the interesting features of the WeMo app, which stands out from others is the ‘simulated occupancy’ option, which randomly switches lights, music, etc, on or off automatically, to make it appear like you are at home, when you might be away on a vacation.
Since WeMo has a broad range of home-automation products, it is possible to club your bulbs with more bulbs—WeMo switch, WeMo Motion, WeMo light switch and WeMo Insight switches. WeMo also proposes to include IFTTT in the near future.
GE: Link and Wink
One more interesting product set for launch this fall is the GE Link smart LED bulb, which works with GE’s emerging smart home platform. Like other Zigbee based light bulbs, Link requires an intermediary hub. While this sounds cumbersome, there are two things that work in its favour. One is the relatively low price of the bulb, at $15. A kit of two bulbs and a hub would be just around $50, which is much cheaper than other brands. The other advantage is the compatibility with Wink, a platform that is so well-accepted in the market that most popular home-automation products, including those from Quirky, Dropcam, Philips, TCP and Honeywell, work with it.
This is not an exclusive list of smart lights. There are many more smart lights, and a great choice of automation platforms, like Infineon and Connect4, that broaden the scope of smart lighting. As the market picks up, surely we will see more products coming up, and as adoption improves, prices are likely to drop, too. The technology, however, is more or less stable. So, if you want to buy an interesting New Year’s gift for yourself, unmindful of the price, a smart light bulb might be a good choice! Just make sure you visit online stores to check who delivers in India and find a good price deal, too.
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai