Smart Home Lighting: The Cons and Pros

Founder of Brilliant Lighting and member of CEDIA, Iain Shaw give us his view of the current state of play between the DIY and Professional smart home lighting markets…

Smart Home Lighting

Smart lighting has never been more accessible nor has it been more prominent.  What do the latest iterations of smart LED lamps tell us about the future of smart lighting?

Smart LED lamps feature heavily in every Internet of Things (IoT) demo or launch presentation.  It’s easy to see why; they give instant, highly visual and often very colourful feedback and lighting has long been seen as a vital component of the smart home.

Rightly or wrongly the world has been exposed to images of seductive lighting control interfaces on Android phones and iPads, videos of people controlling their lights via Siri or Alexa and the smart lighting classic, turning your lights on and off from the beach..

Controlling your lights from the beach

Lutron (top left), Philips (right) and Osram (bottom left) all seem convinced we’re doing this…

Last month I was on the panel at the European Smart Home conference in London representing CEDIA.  Sitting alongside me was Mike McCrory, Senior Product Manager at SmartThings UK.  CEDIA is a trade association of manufacturers and installers for the professional installation market, part of what some industry commentators call the “Do it For Me” sector as opposed to the “Do it Yourself” market characterised by players such as SmartThings, Amazon and Alphabet.  It’s telling to look at the differences in approach between the professional and DIY sectors of the automation market so what do developments in both sectors of the lighting market tell us about smart lighting today and what it might look like tomorrow.

As lighting designers we are talking to homeowners about lighting and lighting control every day.  We’ve never met anyone who wants to turn their lights on and off from the beach (though we do meet people who do want remote access and control of all their home systems particularly heating and security).  We do however meet dozens of people who are absolutely adamant they don’t want to be doing this.  I’ll let one of our customers put it a bit more directly.

“Simple is the order of the day. No pre-programmable systems that allow you to change the mood setting while you’re sitting on the toilet in France, just more things to go wrong!!!!”

That single quote sums up why so many people are suspicious of smart lighting control: “is it too complex?”, “is it going to go wrong?”, “is it giving me things I just don’t need?”.  Industry research consistently backs that up.  Argus Insights provide a valuable source of consumer research on the whole smart home market and a recent blog summarises the issue very neatly.

“The chief complaints amongst Smart Home App users stem from comments on reliability, stability, and overall bugginess of the experience.”

They also note the problem is magnified as now the early adopters (the readers of this blog for example) have got what they need, the next wave of consumers are less tech savvy, less tolerant and more likely to run for the hills in the face of installation issues, connectivity problems and a poor consumer experience.

Both the professional and DIY sectors are fully aware of the issue and both address it through simplifying their offering.  CEDIA and the professional installation sector exists to serve the market that wants automation, can’t or doesn’t do it themselves and who typically will have ease-of-use and reliability as a pre-requisite on their wish list.  It’s a rare successful installation company that doesn’t have a list of approved, tested components and a much longer list of proscribed components or companies that don’t meet the basic reliability requirements. Suppliers into the DIY market (and remember this includes corporations like Samsung, Google, Amazon and Apple here) will stress simplicity of setup and ease-of-use.  They’re less vocal about reliability but in stressing the simplicity message and stripping out complexity in their apps and setup routines to consumers they’re trying to reduce possible failure routes.

LiFX - ease of use

Image: LiFX.com

Professional installers and enthusiasts alike have for years been bringing together pieces of equipment that know nothing about each other into unified interfaces.  Your lights might not have known anything about your home cinema equipment but that didn’t stop us giving you a “Watch Movies” scene that turned on your amp and projector, dimmed your lights, brought down a powered screen and set all the relevant inputs to your media server.  Control systems filled in the blanks and a combination of black box processors, code, user interfaces like touch panels & remote controls and various kinds of sensors gave us a “connected” home well before anyone was talking about the IoT (and before everything was actually connected)

If you’ve not got a yearning to develop your own smart home system and you don’t want to pay someone else to do it you’ve now got more alternatives than ever to do it yourself without reaching for your soldering iron or complier.   Your alternative might not be as fully featured as the “professional” option but it might well do most of what you need, and if it doesn’t today, then it might tomorrow.  What’s the difference between a multi-thousand pound media server like a Kaeidescape and a thirty five quid Amazon Fire Stick.  Some might say they don’t even belong in the same category; the Kaleidescape produces astonishing quality output, an amazing interface and full quality online store.   The Fire Stick is a very different experience but I can play and buy movies & TV series on it; I can talk to it as well and watch catch up telly as well.  They’re totally different products but they have crossover in terms of the use that consumers put them too.  Consumers define categories not manufacturers and consumer demand can be irresistible.  The IoT can be seen filling in the gaps previously filled by smart people and control systems.

Products that fully meet the needs of both markets can go on to become real category changers.  I’m one of the group of early adopters who bought their first Sonos from one of the infamous group buys on the UKHA_D mailing list here.   My Sonos are still running more than ten years later and they do far more today than they could when I bought them.  They’ve become a massive player in both the DIY market AND the professional installation market where they’ve become a staple despite their DIY presence.  They meet a consumer need very well and they meet the quality, control and reliability requirements of the professional market.  Ironically where Sonos threatened higher-end professional multiroom systems, it’s now uneasily looking over its shoulder at the smart speakers like Echo and Google Home’s offering.

There’s still a gap between the DIY smart lighting options and the professional market exemplified by brands like Lutron, Control4 or C-Bus.  The gulf isn’t in the control “smarts”.  Hue, LiFX and Lightify et al. do some amazing things and their IoT credentials open up all sorts of opportunities that more traditional systems can’t without considerably more work.  If we put aside the clichéd images of sun loungers and lighting apps there’s some really compelling applications for smart LED lamps; waking you up, helping you go to sleep, getting you energised, informing you of other things, welcoming you home.  The gulf is the range of lighting available right now.  We’d not try to design a whole house scheme with such a limited template of fittings and form factors and we’d want the reliability and robustness that a hard-wired lighting control system offers today.

Harrogate Villa - Brilliant Lighting

But what if we could have the same smart control in all the fittings we use? That really would change things.  Smart lighting will become truly smart when we see intelligence, communications and sensing built into the chips of mainstream luminaires with individual control and two way comms.  LED has created the opportunity to make lighting a truly digital service and we may be on the verge of lighting becoming the most ubiquitous smart home technology of them all.

Iain Shaw is a Partner at Brilliant Lighting, an award-winning lighting design practice delivering inspirational lighting design across the UK.

www.brilliantlighting.co.uk

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