Casting Light on the Internet of Things

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Smart bulbs were among the first products to have commercial success in the connected home. While simple in theory, they have the very practical application of allowing users to control electric lights from smartphones or tablets.

Interactivity is one of their key features. The lights allow users to interact with them in a number of new ways and offer other features that standard bulbs do not. Take color, for instance. Users can cycle through colors to change the mood of a room or make it more relaxing.

Of course the bulbs are also energy efficient because they are light-emitting diode (or LEDs). LEDs, as the US Dept. of Energy explains, are a type of solid-state lighting that use a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. They can also emit light in a specific direction, reducing the need for reflectors and diffusers that can trap light.

While many of these bulbs were meet with skepticism at first, they have endured and grown to be a staple product in many connected homes and, increasingly, work environments.

But What's the Big Deal?

It's cool to be able to change the color of the lights in a room without changing a bulb. More than a conversation piece at social gatherings, the feature can help to soften the light and adjust the mood of a room.

This can help the user relax or gain the optimal light for whatever task or situation they might be involved in at the moment. In addition, the user can also adjust intensity to best fit any situation — boosting the already significant energy efficiency of the LED bulbs.

But there's more. Smart bulbs also have the ability to talk with each other and create their own networks. This enables them to scale throughout a whole home or office building with a single controller, and adds to their energy efficiency.

This ad-hoc networking feature of many new smart bulbs has other implications. The bulbs can be paired with other sensors and used for a number of other functions, like tracking people and things as they move about an area.

Many of the newer generation smart bulbs are coming with more advanced features like motion detection that will allow them to self adjust light intensity as individuals move in and out of an area.

Having lights that can turn themselves on and off as a person moves from one area of a building to another is a great way to save money and improve the overall energy efficiency of a home or office. This data can also be analyzed to determine the precise cost and energy savings.

The Next Generation

The cost of smart bulbs is steadily dropping. Just this past July, GE announced new < a href="http://www.gereports.com/post/89793785255/the-smartest-bulb-in-the-box-will-talk-to-your"target="new">Link bulbs. While you'll need a hub ($30 if purchased separately), the LED-based white lights cost just $15 to $25 each. Competitors, including Philips' upcoming Lux models, cost $40 each.

GE hired actor Jeff Goldblum to promote the new Link light bulb. Goldblum plays Terry Quattro, an egotistical celebrity who credits his success to, yep, good lighting. He concludes, "Now you can get successful-guy lighting at normal-guy prices."

There are a number of related technologies on the verge of commercial applications. Li-Fi is the commonly used name for bi-directional, networked wireless communications that use visible light as opposed to traditional radio frequencies to transmit data. They rely on photosensitive sensors, which can detect the nonvisible modulation of the light.

Allowing LED smart bulbs to act as data transmission and receiving points in a building's network could help to alleviate wireless congestions by moving some of the traffic off of the RF spectrum and onto the visible light spectrum.

Many mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are ideal use cases for Li-Fi. They could be placed under a smart bulb when a person was sitting at a desk or positioned to naturally face up toward the light while a person is walking around the area.

Stationary items like printers and other smart home appliances such as the smart refrigerator could also tap into Li-Fi.

(I'd be remiss if I failed to mention security, one of the big concern with Li-Fi. Security experts claim it's easy to hack network-enabled LED light bulbs. But that's a story for another day.)

While the smart bulb was an early entry into the connected home space, it has defined itself as a valuable and versatile product. In conjunction with technologies now under development, including Li-Fi, the bulbs have even brighter futures. They are likely to have long runs as cornerstone Internet of Things product in connected homes and offices.

Title image by Tekniska museet  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.