The most influential companies in lighting are reimagining one of the most fundamental features of our homes: the light switch. Will the smart home of the future understand our lighting needs without us needing to flip a switch? In the fourth episode of a 7-part series on the future of the smart home, Andrew explores whether there’s a place for light switches in the future of smart lighting and why the winner of the space is far from obvious.
What are the benefits of having your home’s lights on the network? The most obvious use case is that, when you’re away from home, you can turn your lights on or off. But you can also imagine how a really smart system knows that, when you get into bed, it should turn off the lights in the rest of your house. Or you can imagine how, in a security context, if a sensor on the outside of your house notices suspicious movement, it might turn on the lights to mimic your presence.
In the case of smart lighting, the fight for supremacy won’t simply be a function of user interface or distribution. Instead, the winner in smart lighting actually might be based on which company possesses the right vision determining how your entire lighting system is set up.
Today, you walk into a room, and if you want the lights on, you’ll flick a switch on the wall. What is the ideal way that this should work in a smart home? Would you find it easier to take out your phone, open an app, and turn on the light from there? Maybe not, if you’re walking into the room and you have to dig your phone out of your pocket. More likely, if you’re sitting on the couch and too lazy to get up, that could be a particularly useful instance where you might want to tell your Amazon Echo: “Alexa, turn on the lights.”
What if the room just knew you were in it and turned on the lights for you? Could we ever get to a place where there would be no light switch in the wall and the home would simply understand our intentions before we articulated them?
Neil Orchowski & Lutron
If you want to retrofit your lights by connecting them to the network, it would seem logical to do this by replacing the box that contains your light switch to include some receiver and transmitter within the switch so that you can control the switch remotely. The market leader in light switches and dimmers in the United States is a company called Lutron.
Neil Orchowski is Lutron’s Product Development Manager for Strategic Alliances. Caséta Wireless is the name of their lighting control product line. When I spoke with Neil, I wanted to understand all the different components of Caséta Wireless and what the integration with an existing lighting system would look like.
“Caséta consists of a few basic building blocks. . . . We have dimmers, we have switches, they all communicate wirelessly through what Lutron calls our ‘Clear Connect wireless technology.’ That would be like WiFi or Bluetooth or Zigbee or Z-Wave.”
Zigbee and Z-Wave are wireless communication protocols that are similar to WiFi and Bluetooth, except that these transmitters and receivers require very little power.
“From there, you start your smart home with Caséta with what we call our Pico Wireless Control, which is a wireless remote control that happens to also mount to the wall inside that same wall plate that you might use for your dimmer. If you want to add a three-way location for controlling your lights from anywhere else in the room or in the home, you add this Pico to the wall, put a wall plate around it, and now you’ve created a smart three-way application that didn’t require a calling an electrician, pulling wires, cutting drywall, etc. For some people, that’s smart.”
“The way that works is, if I did not have a third switch somewhere else, it’s essentially a relay. . . . Is that right?”
“Exactly. Imagine a hallway where you come in from your front door and there’s a switch at the start of the hallway and you walk down the hallway to where your bedrooms are and maybe it wasn’t wired to have a switch there. But that’s really where you want to control the lights and turn the lights back off so you don’t have to walk all the way down to the end of the hallway. You could hire an electrician to pull wires and install an analog switch there or use this Pico remote control, which is wire-free, battery powered, 10 year battery life, that then wirelessly communicates to that dimmer at the other end of the hall providing you that easy, convenient, new control of your lights. . . . What if you have guests visiting your home and your guests don’t have an app where you can control your lights through the app? When they walk out that door, they want to be able to push a button.”
The Caséta Wireless product line also works with voice activation.
“Once you want to connect more than just that remote, then you connect to what we call the Lutron Smart Bridge. . . . It’s something that connects your local network — your WiFi router with the wired ethernet connection — to the Lutron bridge, which effectively converts Lutron’s wireless technology over to your home network’s. Now you can tie in all sorts of things like an Apple TV for HomeKit integration, like Amazon Alexa, like Google Home.”
The Challenge Of Going Switchless
One possibility for lighting solutions in future smart homes is to phase out light switches completely. For those of you who already have Sonos in your homes, you probably know that there is no physical switch that you use to turn off the music. You run the music completely from their app.
But there are challenges with the switchless implementation. If you are visiting a home with Sonos and you don’t download the app to control it, you might find yourself unable to turn off the music or even adjust the volume. Now imagine that lighting companies used a similar implementation: no physical switch for the lights and you could only control them through an app. What if the lights were off and the fire department came to investigate a problem while you weren’t home?
You might imagine that switchless design involves an app on your phone communicating with the network and then WiFi or some other protocol communicating the instructions to a receiver that lives in the wall’s electrical box controlling that light switch. However, the receiver on the light switch’s side doesn’t actually need to be in the wall box behind the light switch. It could just as easily live in the light fixture on the ceiling or even inside of the light bulb itself.
Jeff Patton & GE Lighting
While Lutron’s solution isn’t overly complicated, you still need an electrician to implement it, unless you want to risk unscrewing a wall plate and replace the existing switch in the wall with these new smart switches. If you screw in a smart bulb, you don’t have to use the switch because you can also control the bulb over your network.
One company making WiFi-enabled light bulbs that work this way is GE Lighting. GE Lighting is confident in the power of a lighting solution that doesn’t require a smart switch. I spoke with Jeff Patton, General Manager of Connected Home Products within GE Lighting.
“We launched into the connected space with our second generation products we call C by GE about a year ago in 2016. We’ve launched a set of smart bulbs. They are Bluetooth low energy-enabled. Our strategy there was around giving people that first taste of the smart home without a hub, so these are controlled directly via one’s phone and an app.
“We’re rolling out shortly a connected table lamp that actually has the Alexa voice service embedded in the table lamp, and so it’s got speakers, mic, Wi-Fi streaming all integrated in that unit. . . . We’re also launching our version of a bridge, which will enable our connected bulbs to be controlled out of the home to give you more of that level 2 experience from a smartphone perspective.”
I wondered: did this mean that GE Lighting no longer believed in the future of the light switch?
“When we started down this journey, one hypothesis I had was that we could really liberate ourselves from the light switch. And I think that by having this first level that’s controlled by your phone, it does give you a certain independence from that. You can essentially use your phone as a remote control. As we roll out scheduling, that gives you another degree of freedom from the light switch. The lights will come on and off. . .
“Our in-home studies that we’ve done have shown that there’s still value in having a light switch of sorts. How we define that switch and its utility is certainly changing. It’s not the switch that we’ve had for the last hundred years. This is your one way to control your lighting in a space. When you walk in and out, now you have all these options between the remote control that I’m saying your phone is to a schedule. As we roll out more elements, you get more on-demand control via voice.”
Sridhar Kumaraswamy & Philips Lighting
Let’s contrast GE Lighting with Philips Lighting. The latter also has a smart bulb, but you’re really supposed to use the bulb with a bridge that is made by Philips Lighting. Unlike GE Lighting’s smart light bulb, you can’t just screw in a smart light bulb from Philips Lighting and then begin turning on and off the light from an app on your phone without buying any additional Philips Lighting components.
Sridhar Kumaraswamy is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Hue Home Systems, the smart lighting solution from Philips Lighting. We began by talking about how the entire smart product line called Philips Hue works.
“The architecture is such that you always need the hub. The hub does three different things. It manages the Zigbee network — the network which controls the light points. It acts as a bridge between the Zigbee network and the IP side and then acts as a gateway to the internet. Then perhaps most importantly, it has . . . our lighting operating system. It has our logic, which actually enables users to get their lights to respond to what they would define as their personal lighting experiences. The hub is absolutely essential and you have to commission all of our lighting products and switches using the hub.”
If you’re not yet confused by how the different players in the lighting space work and compete with one another, you should be. Here is a partner of Lutron that is also competing with Lutron in the smart lighting space.
“Within our team, we have this debate as to where this is headed, but the conclusion that we are coming down to is that switches, as we see it right now, are not going to disappear anytime soon. We don’t see that in the medium-term. When I talk about medium-term, I’m looking at a horizon of the next five to seven years.
“We don’t see that accelerating — the disappearance of wall switches — which then would mean that the Lutrons of this world have a role to play. And the question is: what kind of role? From our standpoint, we are asking ourselves: how do you collaborate? What would be an appropriate collaboration strategy with the switch manufacturers, which will then enable us to deliver what we want to focus on, which is the lighting experience?”