For an object that has come to symbolize great ideas, there sure hasn't been that much innovation surrounding lightbulbs. But that's going to change very soon. And not in the relatively humdrum manner of eco-friendly fluorescent units. We mean radically, in a as-smart-as-science-fiction kind of way. And there is much more domestic alchemy where that comes from.
Picture a lightbulb. The one you're thinking of is likely ridiculously simple: It's a glass bottle containing a material that glows, wired up to the electric supply through some old fashioned-looking connectors. Somewhere there's a wall switch for it, which you toggle when evening falls, or when you stagger to the bathroom half asleep in the middle of the night. If you're a bit fancy you may have an infra-red remote control or even a Clapper (remember them?!). But the lightbulb you have in your mind right now is, digitally speaking, dumb.
Now picture a totally different kind of bulb. A futuristic, eco-friendly LED powered device that has a tiny electronic brain and some awareness of what's going on around it--it can even talk to other technology. It's smart.
It's smart enough that if you put it in a bedside lamp it could detect that you've woken and are heading for that midnight leak--and it knows the time, so it automatically turns on dimly to not hurt your eyes. A lamp like this would also be smart enough to adjust its color dramatically, delivering a 21st Century moodlight experience when used in your living room. It could perhaps flash an urgent amber to remind you that your pizza's had enough time in the oven.
A group of smart lamps could be intelligent enough to chatter to one another over Wi-Fi, allowing you to create amazing lighting "scenes" for your home, just like a lighting engineer in a theater. Such swarms of smart lights could automatically fade on and off to save energy as your home's occupants amble from room to room. Lamps like this could even alert you if you've got a new email, triggered by signals coming form your PC or tablet, or help you find your mislaid smartphone by detecting its Wi-Fi signature and then steering you to the room where you've left it.
By being made smart, the simple lightbulb is transformed. It's no longer an on/off boring system that turns night into day. Instead the bulb, in concert with other home technology, is an almost magical item that augments your lifestyle. Maybe its convenience and smart powers even add to your relaxation, health or happiness. Seriously, it might: The best and most innovative uses of smart lightbulbs are probably things we can't imagine yet, and we understand lighting can affect your mood. The impact smart bulbs will have on all sorts of things in your life will be impressive.
What will happen to home decor? Choosing a color for your dining room is suddenly less critical if you've got lights that can turn it any color like from violet to emerald on a whim. "Leaving the lights on for the burglars" when you're on vacation will change, because you could make it seem as if your whole family was moving around, or even emulate the flicker of a TV glow. And what about watching a movie in your lounge with the room lights playing along with the drama unfolding on the screen?
All of this is just idle day dreaming of a future ever far away, right? Nope. We're not talking about the far future here. Smart lightbulbs are imminent. Philips is sellling its Hue smart wireless units, and there are a clutch of Kickstarter projects (with LifX at the lead) that are offering some form of smart lightbulb functionality from lightbulbs to smart phone docks.
The technology is arriving right now because several amazing developments have happened all at once. Colored LED lighting is now powerful, reliable and low priced enough to be built into consumer electronic devices and sold cheaply in bulk. Tiny low-power processor chips, like those by ARM, and their ancillary circuits are powerful and ubiquitous thanks to innovations in smartphone design. Wireless radio systems like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are ubiquitous and tiny, cheap, low-power Wi-fi systems are economical enough to be built into devices like a lightbulb, enabling new devices to connect to the Net. And finally sensor technology, be it light, motion, heat or even the rotation gyros in your smartphone is cheap, accurate and plentiful. Pile all of these systems together into the base of an otherwise-innocuous bulb and you get what Steve Jobs, and probably sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, would have called "magic."
This technology is going to power "The Internet of Things," an imminent technological paradigm that will see chips, sensors and smarts inserted into everyday things that you probably wouldn't ever think of, turning them into magical items--just like your lightbulbs.
All the smart systems in the bulbs we've discussed could go in your home's irrigation system, for example. Imagine a lawn that knows when it needs a sprinkle by detecting the dryness of the grass or a flowerbed that knows it needs water by detecting the soil dryness. Then remember that the system is smart, and won't waste water--it may even conserve this precious resource by delivering irrigation precisely, and with not a drop of over-watering. A really smart system would even be able to add plant food to the mix at the right intervals, keeping your prize-winning rosebush in perfect health. There's even research going on as to how Internet Of Things-based irrigation could help farming.
Smart security is another application, creating a safe home that far surpasses the simple alarm systems we rely on now (or don't, because we forgot the PIN code). A smart home security system could have sensors everywhere--even using the sensors in smart lightbulbs to detect intruders--each reporting back in real time. This network could be programmed to ignore your cat, and even to call your cell phone and serve up a video feed of something it thinks is suspicious if you're away from home. Every door lock and every webcam in your home could talk together to make your home secure.
As Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures (a venture capitalist and Internet of things expert) points out, you may even soon be wearing smart clothing. Riddled with sensors and other systems, smart clothes could do everything from change color to broadcasting your Twitter feed as you walk down the street to continuously monitoring your health.
But smart bulbs, irrigation, security and all the rest of the upcoming Internet of Things are just the beginning, however. Coneybeer spoke to Fast Company, and argued that this sort of tech is almost version 0.9 of the Internet of Things. It's just a smart way to "turn stuff on and off" he noted, which is definitely "interesting." But it's not really clever, and it won't lead to a revolution. There are several barriers: An Internet of Things coffee maker, he pointed out, may be able to brew you a coffee before you know you need it...but you still have to feed it beans and clean it.
Still, smart bulbs are definitely a start, and Coneybeer's certain that at some point soon the Internet of Things will become even more clever.
[Image: Flickr user jurvetson]