"Smart,” Internet-enabled light bulbs made with LEDs are attracting entrepreneurs and major companies who see the bulbs as the next big thing in lighting. The innovation has attracted a slew of inventors, entrepreneurs and big players in the business.
The smart bulbs connect to a local network, and can communicate with a smartphone, computer or tablet. Owners can then use their phones or computers to control the brightness and, in some cases, color of the light. As an added bonus, users can program the lights to cut down energy costs, for example by turning off the lights at certain times of day. Users who will be away from home could even set the lights to turn on and off to ward off potential burglars.
Several companies have all rolled out or plan to ship a connected LED bulb, including established players like Philips and Insteon, the early-stage and venture-funded Greenwave Reality, and crowdfunded projects LIFX and iLumi.
LEDs could also mean huge cost savings for homeowners and businesses. If a 10-watt LED bulb replaced all the 60-watt incandescent bulbs in the U.S., it could save about $3.9 billion in the country's annual electric bill.
LEDs offer greater energy efficiency than incandescent bulbs, because most of the current they use goes into making light rather than heat. Most incandescent lights, for example, produce anywhere from 5-20 lumens (a measure of brightness) per watt, whereas compact fluorescent bulbs put out about 40-70 lumens. By comparison, LEDS range from 20 lumens up to 100 lumens.
Another LED advantage is that the lights can be dimmed, unlike most compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), and LED designs can easily accommodate a "warmer" light appearance. By combining different-colored LEDs and adjusting how bright they are relative to one other, users can even change the color of the light.
A smart LED light could offer even greater energy efficiency than a regular LED, as users can program it from a mobile device or PC to go on and off when needed. [Top 3 LED Light Bulbs]
Tech-savvy consumers have shown interest, with LIFX raising $1.3 million in its Kickstarter campaign, after an initial goal of just $100,000. That demonstrates a market for the products, said Australian entrepreneur Guy King, who also made a sizeable investment in LIFX after their Kickstarter project.
"With my angel investor hat on, I look at the size of the market, the quality of the team and any quantifiable validation of the model. Given LIFX was projected to be the largest Kickstarter campaign of all time (according to kicktraq.com) and the volume of preorder registrations still coming in, this sends me a very good signal," he wrote in an email.
The project goes beyond just lights. Greg Memo, CEO of Greenwave, said the connected light bulb is a kind of "stalking horse" for the connected home, which would have several appliances, Internet connected and accessed via mobile devices – an "Internet of things." "This is going to happen," Memo said. "It's just a question of when it does. People expect things to be intelligent."
LIFX hasn't started shipping yet, nor has iLumi. Kickstarter (and by extension Indiegogo) projects have met with some skepticism regarding their ability to develop and ship products on small budgets. Felix Salmon, a journalist who writes a regular column at Reuters, criticized LIFX in a September blog post, saying it wasn't at all clear LIFX could deliver, given the technical challenges in creating an LED light bulb that fits into a conventional socket and incorporates a Wi-Fi connection.
Not so easy
King maintains that the company can do it.
But there are hurdles. First is the price of LED bulbs. LIFX offers one of their bulbs for a pledge of $69. Greenwave sells a single bulb for $20, and Philips' offering, available only through Apple Stores, costs $59. That's pretty expensive for a light bulb, and more than a compact fluorescent costs (a typical CFL equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent can be had for under $10).
On the bright side, it is still cheaper than installing a lighting control system in the house, which could cost many thousands of dollars. And, over time, the energy savings could return the purchase price. Gary Roenfield, CEO of Switch Lighting, which offers ordinary LED bulbs, notes that many consumers will buy the smart bulbs for the energy savings, even if the reductions in their bill don't immediately justify the high price. "They will see it as doing the right thing," he said. [INFOGRAPHIC: Gadget Power Drain]
But the bulbs also pose technical challenges. Chief among them is heat. Any electronic device throws off heat, and 120-volt circuits pumping current into a control system for the lights just adds more. That means the system needs a heat sink. Switch Lighting went with a novel solution: filling the bulb with liquid silicone, which circulates like the wax in a lava lamp. (The silicone is clear, so users don’t notice it.)
Other companies have tried different solutions. Isaac Sanz, director of marketing at Insteon, said the company used a folded aluminum design. Lifx hasn't said exactly how its sinks will work. Memo said that managing the heat was one of the bigger problems Greenwave faced, though eventually the company solved it.
It's also no simple task getting a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signal through a light socket. "You need to fit a Wi-Fi chip set in a metal can in the ceiling," Memo said. But metal tends to block radio signals, so engineers need to build a radio that can get around that.
If manufacturers weren't limited to the shape and size of the old Edison light bulb, metal sockets wouldn't matter as much. But since most people aren't going to change out all the light sockets in the house, engineers are stuck with the old system.
Those technical limitations mean designing and getting a bulb to market isn't going to be easy. And that's why at least a few people are skeptical that it can happen, at least from a Kickstarter or Indiegogo project.
But substantial tail winds should boost sales. First, governments are mandating the phase-out of incandescent bulbs. Second, LEDs might appeal to many people who like the energy savings of CFLs, but don't want to deal with the toxic chemicals the bulbs can release if they break.
Last, there's the sheer size of the market. Roenfield noted that there are 13 billion light sockets in the world today, and some 9 billion bulbs are sold every year. "Even a small part of that could keep a small company going," he said.
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