If CES 2013 and Kickstarter are anything to go by, our current centralized lighting control paradigm may soon give way to smart light bulbs and sockets wizened by the Internet of Things (WiFi), 6LoWPAN, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth and possibly a new RF protocol from Google under its Android@Home initiative.
What could be a simpler approach to home automation? Just replace your existing bulb with a fancy new one, and it’s at your command with a simple app.
What makes smart bulbs/sockets (almost) viable these days is the proliferation of LED lights which pack a brighter punch in a smaller form factor than incandescent bulbs of yore and even new energy-saving varieties.
Likewise, chip sizes and RF radios are itty bitty these days, allowing them to share space with a bulb in a standard recessed can.
Meanwhile, mass-market home automation providers like ADT, Vivint and Comcast/Xfinity, are spending tons of money to promote home automation including automated lights.
Consumers and the popular press finally are getting (and disseminating) the message that smart lighting offers security, convenience, ambiance and energy savings.
So it seems now is the time to give non-techy consumers a little taste of the stuff with the ultimate DIY lighting control – just screw in a new bulb or socket. So easy an editor can do it.
Here’s the Rub
Setting aside the price of these smart bulbs, here’s big problem No. 1: You have to keep your light switch on all the time to use them.
Who cares? For starters, if you have one switch controlling multiple lights, all of the lights must be made smart.
But here’s the bigger problem: Do you really want to pull out your iPhone to turn lights on and off or to dim them? And what about kids and guests? How can they flip the lights?
To be sure, you can always use the light switches as usual, and then use the apps to set scenes or special effects from time to time. This, I predict, will be the usual scenario with these products, in which case users simply won’t use the smart functionality except for fancy special effects.
But no doubt someone will come out with a battery-operated light-switch-looking-thing that sticks on the wall next to the original switch to control the smart bulbs directly. Great, more wall clutter.
Most of the new smart bulbs have companion handheld remotes or tabletop controllers. And then there’s the price of these bad boys, which range from about $30 to $100 each, sans special controllers that might be needed to control the products with your smart phone.
Even with these shortcomings, the bulbs certainly have merit for isolated areas such as the baby’s room (fade off and on at bedtime and morning), party pad (color effects), outdoors (security and ambiance) or media room.
Shopping for Smart Bulbs
Besides the obvious features like bulb brightness and price, here are a few other features to consider when looking at smart bulbs or screw-in sockets.
Sockets vs. Bulbs
When your $50 - $100 bulb burns out, you have to replace it. A socket won’t burn out.
I’ve seen smart lights with WiFi, 6LoWPAN (IP over 802.15.4), Z-Wave, ZigBee, Insteon and Bluetooth.
You should consider the range of the RF technology and the reliability of the protocol.
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Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.