Smartbulbs bring new Web-connected feature to homes


The New York Times

Get ready to dust off the old jokes about how many (fill in the blank) people it takes to change a light bulb. I just spent a week changing some of the bulbs in my house, and the complexity was enough to give me a migraine.

Programmable light bulbs — you never knew you needed such things, but maybe you do — are among the latest offerings of a technology industry that wants to fill homes with new Internet-connected appliances. So now the humble bulb of old is no longer a throwaway commodity.

It’s a smartbulb, complete with a computer-chip and wireless technology that connects it to the great hive brain in the sky.

The punch line, I suppose, is that these bulbs are worth considering if you have ever fantasized about living in a Jetsons-type household, and if you have enough disposable income to pay the early-adopter tax being levied on them. For that price, you’ll enjoy features that may impress your friends, lower your electric bills and possibly even save the life of a loved one. But more on that later.

Much of the change is a result of legislation passed during the George W. Bush administration, mandating the adoption of energy-efficient lighting. Numbered were the days of traditional incandescent bulbs; in their stead came waves of electricity-sipping halogens, fluorescents and, most recently, LEDs.

The great promise of LEDs is that they are designed to provide good, inexpensive light for decades. When the light bulb efficiency standards started taking effect and the first mass-market LEDs appeared a few years ago, however, the quality of light was morbidly cold and the prices enough to induce shock.

Fifty-dollar bulbs anyone? But in the past year or so, mainstream manufacturers like Philips and General Electric and upstarts like Cree, most notably, have started rolling out cheaper bulbs with the kind of warm light you’d actually want to put in a room. As of last week, you could buy Cree’s 60-watt equivalent LED for $8 at New York-area retailers and $5 at some retailers in the Northeast.

Philips has also caused a stir with its Hue lights: With a Wi-Fi connection and a smartphone app, they can change colors and perform tricks previously known only to those with experience in disco lighting. Or hallucinogens.

These same technologies allow you to adjust the warmth and brightness of white bulbs and control them in a variety of ways. And judging from the spate of similar bulbs that have emerged recently, manufacturers believe they have found a new market.

I tested six 60-watt-equivalent programmable LEDs, including GE’s Link ($15), the Philips Hue Lux ($30), Connected by TCP ($20) and Insteon ($30). I also tried out the Connected Cree ($15), and the Osram Sylvania Lightify Tunable White, which is available from Amazon for $30.

They all gave off good, warm light, and they offered the advantage of remote dimming using a smartphone or, in some cases, a dedicated remote control. You can also program them to switch on and off while you’re out of the house, to discourage break-ins.

All of these bulbs require the purchase of a dedicated gateway or hub to connect with your Wi-Fi network. For $50, GE is packaging two bulbs with the Wink home-networking hub, which can also connect to Internet-enabled appliances from Nest, Bali, Kidde and Schlage, as well as lights from Philips, Cree and others. The Wink sells separately for around $50.

Networking hubs made by Iris, Staples Connect and others offer similar functionality, and the Nest thermostat can act as a de facto hub in its own right. But not all hubs work with all Internet-enabled devices, because to do that they must speak the same technology language. And therein lies the one significant drawback of shopping for smartbulbs at the moment.

If you own stock in migraine-related pharmaceuticals, get ready to feel your legs tingle.

When appliances and other critical systems in the home are connected to the Web, they must use a wireless standard of some kind, be it Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or a radio frequency agreed upon by independent manufacturers, as with the so-called ZigBee standard.

But partly because the “smart home” industry is so nascent, businesses haven’t yet widely agreed upon a single communication standard. So if you buy a set of smartbulbs and you’d like them to flash if your smoke alarm is triggered at night or your webcam detects an intruder, for instance, you may be out of luck.

As a result, said Richard Gunther, a consultant with Universal Mind, a Denver technology firm, smartbulb buyers have no choice but to do some research before they buy.

“You can’t just buy a bulb and screw it in and expect it to work with your connected system,” he said.

Nadarajah Narendran, a professor and director of research at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, agreed.

“If you want the additional convenience that can come with the new LEDs, you need to be ready not just with your money but with your time,” he said.

Both men expect things to get easier soon, perhaps as early as this year, as the industry coalesces around wireless standards the way the home-video industry ultimately settled on the VHS standard. The difference, they said, was that the smart-home industry will likely find ways to bridge the varying technologies, rather than leaving some consumers stranded on Betamax Island.

Of course, this wouldn’t be such a big deal if smartbulbs weren’t likely to constitute an important link in a long chain of connected home devices in the future. For instance, at the annual geekapalooza known as the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas earlier this month, Philips was one of a host of companies that announced new ways to connect with the Google Nest thermostat ($200) and Nest Protect ($100), which detects carbon monoxide and smoke.

The “Works With Nest” program presages a future when locks, lights, air-conditioners and other appliances could be programmed to execute specific tasks whenever Nest detects activity in the house. (Among other things, the Nest thermostat is equipped with a motion detector.)

One of the more talked-about features focused on home safety. If you own Philips Hue A-19 color LEDs ($200 for three bulbs and a hub), you can program them to flash and glow red if Nest Protect detects dangerous smoke or carbon monoxide levels anywhere in the house. Why red? Phillips says white light makes it harder to see in smoky conditions. That said, Hue’s Lux (white) bulbs can also flash in conjunction with the Nest Protect’s alarm.

One of the more interesting connected-LED categories comes in the music realm, with companies like Sengled, Awox and others making lights that are also speakers.

Awox’s Striimlight ($129 for Wi-Fi, $99 for Bluetooth) changes colors with the music, while the Sengled Pulse ($170 for a starter pair, $80 for additional units) emits only white light but has a speaker inside made by JBL.

When I tried out the Pulse, it provided good light and decent audio versatility; its mobile app offered the option of tweaking the sound settings in response to the type of music being played.

The Striimlight’s Smart Control app offered color control with a feature that purported to change colors in time with the music. I tried it with (what else?) Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and was slightly underwhelmed at the sometimes random nature of the color changes. Still, the effect was cool.

It’s a fitting enough metaphor for the entire programmable LED market at the moment: a little pricey and out of sync, but still plenty trippy.

Last modified: January 29, 2015
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.