Smart lights, smart bulbs, LED lights and wireless lighting systems are hot this year. Philips Hue and others made Wi-Fi bulbs something that every geek wanted. Lutron, Control4 and others offer a strong selection of wirelessly controlled wall switches and keypads that let you turn your lights (any kind of lights) on and off with an app.
What we haven’t seen yet is a rush to sell wirelessly-controlled smart lamps? That’s a big hole in the market, and I’ll tell you why.
For many average homeowners, the first experience with a smart lighting system, or even a home automation system, is going to be with a wireless LED bulb. There are several on the market now, Philips Hue, LIFX, TCP… and others. With those products, control is taken away from the light or switch and put into an app. These are great smart lighting products, but somewhat limited in what they offer for true whole-house lighting control.
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On the other end of the spectrum you have automation companies like Lutron, Control4, Elan, Savant and Crestron that offer integrated solutions complete with keypads and dimmers.
The problem with the first set, the wireless smart bulbs, is that you absolutely must use the app to control them. We have several of these in our home. Tapping a button on my iPhone to turn off a bunch of lights (or change the color, in the case of the Philips Hue) is fun and often very convenient. Where smart lights fall short is the times you don’t have your phone with you. There have been many times when I left my phone charging at an outlet and had to go searching for it just so I could turn a light on or off.
Most of these smart bulbs are screwed into lamps (they’re a bit large for most can light fixtures). To turn the light on you need to wake up your phone, find the app, launch it, and finally press the correct button. Unless the bulb does something special (such as change color or play music), the appeal of app control wears off around the first time your reach out to turn off the lamp at the switch. Doing that, of course, throws everything off. These systems only work if there’s constant power to the Wi-Fi (or Bluetooth or Z-Wave) radio in the bulb. When you turn off the lamp itself, the app becomes useless.
If the Wi-Fi (or other radio) was in the lamp itself, this wouldn’t be an issue. When you turned off the lamp at the switch it would be smart enough to only turn off the power to the bulb, not the receiver. That’s how larger lighting control systems work at the wall switch or keypad level.
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So why don’t we have wirelessly controlled smart lamps? Cost is probably one factor, and housewares manufacturers are the last to adopt new technology. Lowes, Macy’s Home Goods, IKEA etc. have rows of desk, table and floor lamps in hundreds of styles, but nothing that do anything more interesting then turn on. They probably (and probably rightly) assume that customers are looking for inexpensive and attractive lamps, not home control technology.
I’ve seen one Kickstarter campaign for a smart lamp, and it was a goofy looking thing that never met its funding goals.
Think about other smart devices in the home. Take smart locks. Smart locks and deadbolts are available from a number of major and smaller lock manufacturers. They employ a variety of wireless technologies and most include apps for operating and status checks. Most also continue to work like traditional door locks with keys.
And that’s the point. A new smart technology should expand on the user’s functionality, but not replace one level of functionality (the one we’re used to) with a new one.
The same goes for smart thermostats—even with wireless and remote features, they still can function like plain-old manual thermostats.
So far, the smart lighting solutions that are able to bridge the gap between old and new functionality are the professionally installed systems, because they put the wireless access in the wall switch or panel, rather than in the bulb.
I like smart bulbs a lot and have several, but the way they function now they’ll never be the primary light solution.
Also check out:
Hands On: Lumen by Tabu Smart LED Bulb
Hands On: Philips Hue LED Light Control Kit
FX Luminaire Luxor Uses Wi-Fi for Lighting Control
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.