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When light bulbs get smart


Syd Bolton, Brantford Expositor

, Last Updated: 4:49 PM ET

The light bulb. Such a common piece of technology that we almost take them for granted. The invention of the incandescent light bulb tends to fall on Thomas Edison although there are claims that many people invented the light bulb. Much like the telephone, the invention was going to happen no matter what and it has completely changed the world we live in.

With a regular incandescent bulb costing as low as $ 1 today, lighting up the average home (based on 40 light sockets per home) would work out to be $ 40. Of course, the cost doesn’t stop there and when you can consider the high costs of electricity to run these bulbs, other alternatives are certainly worth looking at.

I’m sure we can all remember when compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) came out. They offered incredible durability but far better energy efficiency. The first ones were slow to turn on and were very expensive per bulb. Now, however, they’re better than they ever were and cost closer to $ 2 each, just twice as much as the cheaper incandescent bulbs. Over their lifetime however, they cost only about 25% of their older counterparts

While CFLs are definitely a step in the right direction, LED bulbs seem even better. Sure they are more expensive to buy right now but their lower energy use and long-lasting properties make them even more attractive. But, more importantly,  we have an entire infrastructure of light sockets in homes with electricity connected to them. What can we do next?

It turns out that it’s not only your TV and phone that can become “smart” but your light bulbs too. Products like the Philips Hue allow you to control your light bulbs with your smartphone and turn them on and off when you are not around. You can control dimming without even getting up off the couch, or integrate in something much cooler, such as having your lighting environment match the video game you are playing.

I was first turned onto this technology during an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank when a company called Ilumi  inked a deal with tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Slightly different than the Philips offering,which requires a separate control bridge to operate, the Ilumi bulbs have Bluetooth built-in and plug into a standard light socket. The bulbs themselves are a little more pricey, but in installations where only a bulb or two is required, this makes the most economic sense. Like other solutions, this one allows you to control the bulbs from your smartphone and most integrate with other solutions, such as the Nest to automatically turn the lights down at night and turn them on in the morning.

While turning lights on and off (or dimming them) might not seem to exciting to you, keep in mind that most of these solutions also offer the ability to completely alter the colours your bulbs are emitting. Pure white light is boring by today’s standards and so products like Lifx offer you literally millions of colours at a cost of only 11 watts of power. It also works with Nest and other smart home solutions, allowing you a completely mood changing environment to suit any situation. The possibilities, like the colours, are pretty much endless.

With prices dropping and options expanding it’s just a question of when all of us are going to have smart bulbs in our homes! It’s a very exciting time.

While it’s not entirely clear how we got to these incredibly smart bulbs the path of evolution has been clearly lit for years. While very little innovation occurred in the light bulb until recently it has certainly made up for lost time and allowing us to keep using the existing infrastructure of sockets all of us already have in our homes is simply brilliant. It’s like a light bulb went off somewhere. A light bulb of a light bulb? Genius.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.

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