Photo: Don Farrall—Getty Images

In the race to enter the smart home, vastly different companies find themselves talking the same language. For two American fixtures, it's all about lighting.

By Andrew Nusca
September 4, 2014
September 04, 2014

Until they’re no longer functioning, the light bulbs in your home are probably close to the last thing on your priority list. But the lowly bit of technology—which was invented well over two centuries ago, it’s worth noting—is going through a period of dramatic and rapid evolution. What was for generations analog is becoming digital. The fact that the bulb uses electricity to emit light is about the only thing that’s consistent between old and new.

Two large companies in radically different industries are betting a lot on the transition currently underway. In one corner, there is Los Angeles-based Belkin, a technology company known for its power accessories and Internet routers. In another, there is Massachusetts-based Osram Sylvania, a manufacturing company known for its namesake lighting fixtures and more than a century of history.

Unlikely bedfellows, sure. But not if you rethink how to build a light bulb in the age of the transistor.

On Friday, the companies will announce a formal global partnership for consumer products, integrating Belkin’s WeMo home automation technology with Osram Sylvania’s Lightify light fixtures in what will eventually become a portfolio of Internet-connected lighting products. The companies’ first joint item will be the Sylvania Ultra iQ BR30 LED light bulb, which will use its connectivity for advanced triggers, such as turning on during a rainstorm, and integration with other WeMo products, including switches and cameras. It will go on sale this fall in the U.S.

If you’ve been following technology news over the last five years or so, you have been hearing about the connected home and the “Internet of Everything” for quite awhile. The well-worn joke is that no one really wants their toaster to send tweets over the transom, but much of the true capability of the technology lies in the concept of home automation—turning the lights on and off or the temperature up or down in a more sophisticated way than mere pre-programmed timers. What if you wanted the lights to turn on when you or a family member were within a 1,000 feet of home? With Internet connectivity it’s possible, and in an era where most people have mobile devices in their pockets and wireless ways to connect, it’s relatively affordable, too.

“The Internet of Things is going to involve a lot of different products in a lot of different categories—everything that could possibly fit into a home,” says Sunny Choi, vice president of corporate development at Belkin. “We were not going to make all those products. We were a power company: surge protectors, power strips. That goes back 20 or 30 years.”

In a connected world, light bulbs present an interesting opportunity, Choi says. They’re ubiquitous, for one: in a space where there’s one toaster there might be several dozen lights, from floor lamps to embedded fixtures. “We did a lot of research to look at what people wanted to automate,” he says. “People want to control lighting. The natural path was to get into light bulbs.” The companies began talking a year ago.

What if you could control lighting with much more sophistication than on, off, or somewhere in between? With a digital bulb—light-emitting diode plus Internet connectivity—you can, says Jes Munk Hansen, chief executive of Osram Sylvania. It’s not just a matter of the home, either. It also applies to commercial applications, from factories to storefronts.

“We can not only turn LEDs on and off and dim them but control them in millions of colors and temperatures,” he says. “Your office light today is one color, a temperature that might remind you of your dentist’s office. We can now control that. The last step—and this is where it gets really sexy—is that we can connect our lights to an endless amount of other devices. This huge area is exploding in front of us.”

Hansen offered three examples for how connected lights can make an impact. The first, he says, is working with a wearable device like a smart watch. “You’re wearing a wearable while you’re sleeping and the device detects that you’re about to wake up. So it signals to a Belkin system that when you wake up at 3 a.m., you’re hungry. So it tells the kitchen to turn on a very soft red light, because that’s the right frequency to not wake you up too much but it’s enough for you to not break your leg on your children’s Legos on the floor.”

A second, more commercial example is in a restaurant or retail store where quality of light impacts the bottom line. “Most restaurants these days have one setting for light,” Hansen says. “Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, they run the same light or they manually change it. We can, on an iPad, set a restaurant for five settings—breakfast, breakfast with sunlight, lunch, dinner, wedding—and with a simple touch you can change the mood of his restaurant. You can change the temperatures—a little more yellow or a little more red—to set off an evening dress. It becomes dynamic but much richer.”

Hansen’s third example involves the connected car and dynamic control of a vehicle’s headlamps. “Going forward, cars will have their own IP address,” he says. “You drive down the street and the car can detect others on the road and what speed they’re going. That will feed back to our laser-guided lights, and soon we’ll be able to set them so you get the optimal light in front of you without blinding the guy in front of you.”

For now, the companies’ partnership is limited to the home. Though the establishment of technology standards for lighting applications remain elusive, the costs to manufacture connected bulbs have come down considerably since their first foray on the market, and both companies believe this is the right path to take for new revenue. “Fifty years ago, you plugged a television in, put up the rabbit ears, chose from five channels,” Choi says. “Twenty years ago, you got a cable provider and had hundreds of channels. Today, people are streaming Netflix and Hulu. Light bulbs are a century-old technology. It’s going to be an evolution. The switch is going to happen.”

For Osram Sylvania, it’s the most exciting chapter yet for the company’s best-known products. For Belkin, it’s another step toward redefining the company as one based on connectivity, not power.

“If you believe the market research that’s been done, the Internet of Things space is going to be way bigger than the tablet space or smartphone space—more than a 10-fold bigger market, a multitrillion-dollar opportunity. It’s immense,” Choi says. “It’s not an accident that every company in technology has some sort of Internet of Things strategy.”

Correction, Sept 5, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the CEO of Osram Sylvania. It is Jes Munk Hansen. Additionally, Hansen misstated the color of the light that would less easily wake someone up. It is red, not blue.

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