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JJ Changes Tune: Smart Bulbs Not So Stupid After All

CE Pro's Julie Jacobson changes her tune: For the 132 million homes in the U.S., smart bulbs will absolutely become a very important factor in lighting controls.


Julie Jacobson · August 6, 2014

Smart bulbs have always seemed like a dumb idea to me: Pay $60 to $100 for a screw-in LED and then control it with your phone. That’s a lot of money for a single light vs. a switch that can control a whole bank of bulbs. And then there’s the issue of having to keep the switch on at all times, not to mention the hassle of digging out a smart device to brighten the room.

I was having this very conversation at the recent Parks Associates Connections conference, and someone asked: Is the concept really that stupid or is it just the price? If the price were $10 or $15 per bulb, then would it become interesting? That shut us up because, indeed, if the price carried just a small premium over a standard LED, then it starts to make sense. And you can imagine that the light-switch issue will resolve itself eventually.

CentraLite, for example, recently introduced a ZigBee switch that sits on top of a standard toggle, locking it into the “on” position. The device, then, could be used to control the load “directly” from a location where users expect to flip a switch. Certainly we can expect more such fixes in the future. And that big obstacle — the high price of a smart bulb — also will resolve itself.

Indeed, we’re seeing some aggressive activity on that front. GE plans to smash the price barrier with a $15 ZigBee bulb that will integrate out of the box with the new Wink home automation hub from GE-backed Quirky. That would compare to the $40 Philips Lux, the white-light version of the Philips Hue line.

Related: GE Link Breaks Smart Bulb Price Barriers with $15 ZigBee-Enabled LEDs

In a very unscientific survey of 58 CE pros in February of this year, 27 percent of respondents said they “never gave them [smart bulbs] a thought.” Why should they, when 69 percent of respondents said their clients had “never mentioned it” and another 27 percent said customers had broached the subject only “once or twice.”

On the other hand, asked to comment on the matter, none of the respondents dismissed the category altogether.

“This is a growing category and one that can’t be ignored,” says Travis Leo of the high-end integration firm Residential Systems, Inc., in Lakewood, Colo. “Right now, it is great for small use cases, e.g., exterior lights and safety lamps. If you want to control a bunch of lights, it is problematic to set up and maintain. That being said, if you ignore this category, you will be sorry. Think of this [category] doing to lighting control what Sonos did to distributed audio.”

The most negative comment to come out of the survey was: “Not ready for prime time!” They’re not today, but they will be. Maybe not for new construction, but for the 132 million homes in the U.S. today — to say nothing of the rental/ multifamily market — smart bulbs will absolutely become a very important factor in the lighting controls business, I believe.

I also think this will happen faster than any of us imagined. Even the big daddy of lighting controls, Lutron, has shown smart bulbs for its Caseta line of wireless devices.

Whoever in our survey wrote this comment, I agree with him or her completely: “If someone wrote a very user-friendly program for your computer that would allow you to install them in an entire home and control them from wall type switches in each room that resembled iDevices, that would revolutionize home automation.”

For the record, 38 percent of respondents said Wi-Fi and low-power variants like 6LoWPAN would be their preferred choice of communications for smart bulbs. The second most popular choice was a proprietary protocol such as Lutron ClearConnect or Crestron Infinet. ZigBee and Z-Wave were tied for third place at 17 percent each.

RELATED: CentraLite Solves Pesky Problem of Light Switches & Smart Bulbs



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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at julie.jacobson@emeraldexpo.com

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