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Smart LED Lights -- Not the Brightest Bulbs Yet, but Getting Smarter

The oldest electronic technology has remained largely unchanged for more than 130 years.

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You enter a room, you flip a switch and the light comes on.

For more than 130 years, the oldest electronic technology has astoundingly remained largely unchanged — until the recent advent of the “smart” LED bulb.

LED bulbs are essentially PCs in a socket. As such, an LED bulb is a tabula rasa, a blank slate for clever programmers and engineers to create something more than a simple illumination device.

Instead of flipping a switch, you whip out your smartphone or tablet to wirelessly, via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, turn your smart LED lights on or off. But that’s not the “smart” part. With the smart bulb app, you can schedule your lights to go on or off on a programmed schedule and, in some cases, change color or tone to suit or create a mood.

But let’s get back to that first “smart” bit. How, exactly, is whipping out your smartphone to turn your lights on or off easier — or “smarter” — than simply flipping a switch?

It isn’t. If you think about it, the technology may be cool, but the function is purely Rube Goldberg.

Smart bulbs sometimes make controlling your lights more confusing. If you turn on a smart LED from a wall switch or the lamp itself, your smart bulb app may not be able to turn it off — you have to complete the on/off cycle either from the wall/lamp switch or from the app, not one from Column A and one from Column B. This switch/app control issue multiplies if you have multiple smart LED bulbs and some are on and some are off.

Despite this annoyance, smart LED bulbs will probably catch on anyway. After all, the light bulb is still the universal sign of a brilliant idea, and brilliant ideas are exactly what some LED bulb engineers are hatching for the next generation of “smart” LED bulbs. And one brilliant idea may eliminate light switch and smartphone on/off control entirely.

A bulbous PC

Unlike ancient incandescent and cold fluorescent, LED bulbs do not use chemical processes to create light. LEDs are light-emitting diodes, and use solid-state circuitry to create illumination.

LED bulbs are essentially PCs in a socket. As such, an LED bulb is a tabula rasa, a blank slate for clever programmers and engineers to create something more than a simple illumination device. Product designers are drooling over the opportunity to incorporate capabilities into an LED bulb currently performed by separate devices.

For instance, there have been a handful of LED bulbs that double as either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth speakers. Sengled, a 10-year-old Chinese LED firm, is selling its Bluetooth Sengled Pulse Solo and, early next year, the Wi-Fi Flex. Like the Pulse, Flex will have JBL speakers built into them, but also will be able to wirelessly access personal music libraries and Internet radio stations through Sengled’s iOS and Android app. Sengled also sells the Boost, a smart LED bulb with a built-in Wi-Fi repeater.

Other smart tricks

Sengled is adding more than speakers to LED bulbs. For instance, coming soon is the Sengled Snap. Essentially a DropCam in a bulb, Snap is an overhead flood with an integrated 140-degree wide-angle 1080p video camera.

There’s really no reason that an LED bulb has to be bulb-shaped; it’s merely a matter of maintaining form familiarity.

A two-year-old Cambridge, Mass., startup called BeON is taking a more intriguing approach: A modular smart LED. Instead of a traditional bulb-shaped bulb — there’s no reason an LED bulb has to be bulb-shaped; it’s merely a matter of maintaining form familiarity — BeON has gone all Henry Moore on us. Its “bulbs” have a rectangular hole through their middle into which can be inserted specific function modules.

BeON’s first modular smart LED bulb product is the Home Protection System, a three-bulb kit with yellow modules with built-in microphones so the bulb can hear what’s going on around it and react. For instance, BeON’s LED lights can flash in a preprogrammed sequence if they hear the smoke alarm, CO2 alarm or the doorbell ring.

The BeONs also can supply four hours of emergency lighting in case of power outage, thanks to an integrated e-battery that charges whenever you turn your lamp on.

Along with speakers, cameras, Wi-Fi repeaters and microphones, it won’t be long before smart bulbs incorporate smoke and CO2 detectors, air fresheners, sonic pest repellents, cell signal boosters, or any other single or combination of heretofore dedicated-function devices.

Its master’s voice

There still remains the on/off-switch/app conundrum. If these LED bulbs are so smart and can include microphones, why can’t we just tell them to turn on or off?

You can, sort of. You can tell both the Hue and Insteon smart lights to turn on and off via new hubs that create separate connections to Apple’s HomeKit, Android’s Cortana and Amazon Echo’s Alexa voice-control systems. Just enunciate the appropriate command to one of these voice systems, and after a few seconds of communicating with their respective cloud intelligence, your lights come on or turn off.

But why should smart bulbs need a Cyrano? Soon they won’t. At the upcoming CES, Sengled will announce Sengled Voice, a Wi-Fi smart LED bulb with dual microphones and dual JBL speakers — essentially Siri, Cortana and Alexa in a socket. You’ll be able to speak to the Voice bulb to not only control its lighting, but get answers to questions, listen for alarming sounds such as breaking glass or crying babies, or perform other as-yet unspecified smart home tasks, all with no additional third-party system required.

The idea of integrating all these smarts into a device you’re already using is … well … smart, and may illuminate the future of LED bulbs.


Consumer electronics expert Stewart Wolpin reviews the latest technologies, attends CES annually and is a freelance writer for eBay. Reach him @stewartwolpin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.