Lighting the Way

Photos: Sue Tallon  

For many of us, the concept of a smart home might conjure up images of The Jetsons—a world in which we use our smartphones to seamlessly adjust the air-conditioning and flick on the lights five minutes before we’re scheduled to arrive home. Companies have been trying to automate the home with constantly communicating devices for more than a decade. More of these tools than ever are connected to the internet and each other, and Juniper Research predicts that consumer spending on smart home services will reach $100 billion by 2020. We are at a crucial moment in time that will define how smart home technology is adopted, even though a unified solution has yet to take over. Part of the reason why a unified solution hasn’t taken hold is because there is a lack of consensus around the idea of what exactly makes a home smart.

According to a 2016 homeowners survey conducted by Coldwell Banker, lighting trailed both security and temperature when it came to qualifying a home as smart. Lighting is a logical entry point: Smart bulbs are often easy to install, relatively inexpensive, and their impact on efficiency feels immediate.

The Philips Hue, Lifx Color, and GE Link have set the standard for custom-controlled smart bulbs, but with more options than ever, the proliferation of such connected lighting products is also a prime example of what’s wrong with this trend. More choices mean not only increased competition but also a flood of products and services that can quickly become obsolete. For example, Nest, an early darling of the smart home industry, disabled its Revolv hub this year in order to focus on its Works With Nest program. Customers who bought the $300 hub were left with a useless device and lost all their previously associated data. In the lighting sector, evolving energy regulations and bulbs that come with dedicated and often competing mobile apps further complicate the decision consumers face.

Enter Emberlight, a new lighting company that’s tackling the problem from another angle. Its solution—a plug-and-play adaptor that makes existing bulbs smart via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—leapfrogs the slow, incremental technological advances of the past and eliminates the guessing game for consumers. “We say, ‘BYOB,’ or bring your own bulb,” says co-founder and CEO Atif Noori. “A lightbulb is a commodity, and we’re a tech company. There’s nothing we can do to differentiate on the lightbulb side, so we focus on the technology and the connectivity.”

Noori’s own lightbulb moment came in 2013, when he worked as a product manager for the chip-based engineering company Applied Materials. Wanting to apply the kind of reduced-cost solutions his company was working on toward his own home, Noori did what many in Silicon Valley do to discover success. He “hacked together a prototype,” he says, that went through more than 20 iterations and started with a simple 3-D–printed bulb casing. He posted his solution to Kickstarter. After raising $300,000 in just over six weeks, it was clear Emberlight had hit the sweet spot that consumers were looking for.

Plug and Play Noori then made another smart move: While still in fundraising mode on Kickstarter, he began working with Flex and its accelerator program, Lab IX, which provided local manufacturing support and investment so that his burgeoning company could actually have a hand in making the sockets that more than 2,600 funders had backed. “Getting started in the U.S., it’s really important for a startup to be able to deal with any issues that come up and fight fires on the spot, without having to fly to China,” Noori says. “Flex was great about providing that support to us.” Offering a simple one-piece solution is a differentiator in a marketplace where long-lasting lighting options have already been widely adopted.

LED bulbs, for example, are designed to stay bright for up to 25 years. The Emberlight socket, which converts old bulbs into smart ones, promises ease of use and provides aesthetic lighting control that speaks to design-savvy users. “The idea is we couple the design aspect of lighting with the controls aspect, so you have the flexibility to define how you want your light to look,” Noori says. “We just help you make that light smart. For example, a lot of people like Edison filament bulbs, and those work really well with our product.” In opting for a universal, plug-and-play solution—rather than the common approach that involves syncing multiple devices running on different platforms onto a single wireless network—Emberlight breaks down the barrier to entry, helping people make their homes smarter. “You want an automated product to be seamlessly integrated into your life,” says Noori. “With Emberlight, there’s no hub, no gateway, no wires. It’s just this little socket that takes 30 seconds to install. It’s low-friction entry, and that’s the key differentiating feature.”

Installing an Emberlight is literally as easy as changing a lightbulb. The user just screws an existing bulb—compatible bulbs include most incandescents, halogens, CFLs, and LEDs—into the Emberlight socket, which then connects to a home Wi-Fi network. The user can now control the lighting from anywhere via a dedicated app. In a market where expensive hubs dominate, this represents a simple alternative.

 

Finally Getting Smart Earlier this year, a survey from the consulting firm Accenture found that just 9% of respondents planned on purchasing a connected home device in 2016, the same percentage as in 2015. It’s clear that while there is interest in how we automate our homes, we are far from widespread adoption. Noori envisions a future transition from the connected home—where a variety of connected devices control home features—to a truly smart home. Devices will communicate seamlessly, anticipate patterns, and coexist to create a holistic, intelligent environment that mirrors the complex reality we live in.

Technology journalist Andy Boxall of Digital Trends took an in-depth look at the state of the connected home last year. “Existing connected products, from those in the home to in our car, don’t communicate with each other very well. To make our homes (and lives) smart, they all need to talk and interact with each other, seamlessly,” he wrote. Boxall likens the smart home to living in a luxury hotel where undesirable tasks like grocery shopping or maintaining the security system are done for you, leaving plenty of time for the “cool stuff.” But to do that, he writes, “first, there needs to be a shift away from the gadget-orientated connected home to a smarter, more thoughtful way of living.” So how do we get truly smart?

Connected home systems such as Wink, which controls smart devices throughout a home from a single hub may be part of the equation but Noori sees the answer in the ability to analyze and act on data—to sync up our daily lives with what we need from our homes. Success depends on devices’ abilities to learn, and any single device can gather only so much information.

User preference data needs to be collected, analyzed, and shared so that smart home devices actually work in helpful ways. “I don’t think we’ve seen anyone do anything truly substantial with data—to get [the experience] right just takes so much information,” Noori says. “I think as more products get on the market and interact with each other, the whole ecosystem becomes smarter. People are very complicated; they make and break patterns all the time.”

"The best user interface is no user interface—a point of ambient control where in your Star Trek world your house knows who you are and what you like, depending on the context," says Noori.

To that end, Emberlight’s plug-and-play socket is just the first step in the company’s mission. Emberlight offers a business-to-business platform that includes its core hardware loaded with proprietary firmware; a cloud-based back end with accounts, databases, and analytics; as well as connectivity features for its mobile apps. It’s also working to provide a platform for property management systems like hotels. Noori believes that commercial spaces like restaurants, hotels, or casinos will be at the forefront of the charge toward ambient learning.

Moving forward, the company is focusing on developing a package for smaller lighting manufacturers that want to make connected products but don’t know enough about software. “We’ve created a little module, which is basically the same hardware that’s in our products, and we work with them to integrate it into their lighting products and handle all the software from our side,” Noori says. These B2B solutions aggregate the data from the different products and applications, potentially leading to long-term energy savings. With approximately 6.4 billion connected devices in the world, creating a system that learns to work and behave as we do is certainly rife with potential, but a minefield of cloud infrastructure support and hardware compatibility still lie ahead.

The Emberlight socket signals an important bridge to the future, in which even devices of the past function a little more futuristically. It might just be the training wheels we need as we move toward smart home interfaces like voice, gesture, or touch. “The best user interface is no user interface—a point of ambient control where in your Star Trek world your house knows who you are and what you like, depending on the context,” predicts Noori. How illuminating.