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Web-addressable LED bulb signals arrival of IoT

Posted: 02 Nov 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Wi-Fi router? ZigBee? driver ICs? ac-to-dc voltage converters? Internet of Things?

With Philip's Web-addressable LED light bulb, the emergence of the Internet of Things looks to be well underway. But are we really ready for the Internet of Things?

Is the Internet of Things already at hand in the form of a Phillips box, which is available for $199 at the Apple store? It maybe, and for once, I am inclined to agree with a company executive when he says that this is a "game changer."

Still, the advent of wireless, IP-addressable LED light bulbs in a box begs many questions. The technical ones are fairly straightforward.

Philips has engineered a system called "hue," a necessarily complex system requiring multiple, coloured LED die, driver ICs, microcontrollers, ac-to-dc voltage converters, wireless transceivers, ZigBee and thousands of lines of software. All this complexity replaces a simple evacuated glass envelope enclosing a strand of engineered metal.

The complexity does allow the digital control of the colour and brightness of household lighting via a connected tablet computer or smartphone anywhere in the world. The scenario also assumes the homeowner also has a Wi-Fi router.

It sounds appealing and looks so seductive in the box, especially since it costs only $199. That's relatively cheap considering the promised functionality. It also is probably no coincidence that a hue LED light bulb is finished in brushed metal and glass just like an Apple iPad.

Still, the social questions raised by hue may not be so easy to answer as the technical ones.

Emotionally challenging
The first question is: Why is the hue starter kit being made available exclusively through Apple stores?

My guess is that Philips understands that being able to control domestic lighting from an iPad (or Android tablet) will appeal mostly to early adopters. Those most easily parted from their money tend to shop at the Apple store. Once the Apple fanatics have all bought into hue, the exclusivity will be dropped along with the price.

Second question: Have we thought through the implications of the Internet of Things?

How would we feel someone about remotely controlling lighting levels while we're in the room? What about using lighting with a built-in capability to report usage patterns to third parties like utilities?

While these features were intended as conveniences, the transfer of that degree of intelligence from a limited set of electronic devices to familiar and formerly inanimate objects will be emotionally challenging.

Carbon footprint and genie

Third, we must ask whether the use of such complexity in manufacturing and in transferring work in progress around the world is sustainable. In other words, what is its carbon footprint and is it more than offset by the relatively low levels of energy used when the lights are on?

This will depend on the life of the bulbs. LEDs that last 10 years would be beneficial, but so far not many companies designs consumer goods to last that long

Lastly, and related to the previous two questions, is whether such complexity is worth the trouble. Philips glibly talks about automatic software updates for the hue light bulbs being uploaded wirelessly. Most software users understand devices dependent on software updates can quickly run into problems when hardware and software are out of sync. What happens when the Philips' LED bulb is stuck on rosy-purple because the software update was somehow corrupted?

The fact is that many people will want to try this type of Internet-mediated control. I am sure most early adopters will take to it like proverbial ducks to water while Luddites will stick with tried and trusted technologies.

If this is the beginning of the roll out of the Internet of Things, we should remain circumspect. Hue and the Internet of Things could turn out to be like the genie in the lamp: You get three wishes, but you have to be careful what you ask for.

My desk lamp says I have to end here.

- Peter Clarke
??EE Times

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