Opinion: How an LED light bulb is like a smartphone

Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

As originally invented, the cellphone was intended for one purpose — to make mobile phone calls. And then slowly but surely, cellphone manufacturers started to add some additional functions not related to mobile calling at all: a calculator, a camera, a music player, and eventually, some limited Internet connectivity. Then came the smartphone, completely disrupting our concept of what a cellphone is for. Smartphones suddenly demoted a cellphone's primary purpose — conversation — to secondary status, while absorbing the singular functions of dedicated portable devices.

Ladies and gentleman, meet this decade's version of this dedicated function-absorbing disruptive product metamorphosis: the LED light bulb.

A PC In A Socket

An LED light bulb is fundamentally different than an incandescent or fluorescent light bulb, both of which use chemical processes to produce their glow. Inside an LED bulb, which is bulb-shaped mostly to resemble the familiar incandescent globe perfected by Thomas Edison in the late 19th century, is a computer. In other words, an LED light bulb is just like any other microprocessor-controlled device, and therefore not limited to merely replacing an incandescent or CFL bulb. All manner of add-on functions are possible.

For instance, switching on and off or dimming can be done from a remote control or smartphone, a la GreenWave's Reality Connected Lighting, or the LEDs can be remotely instructed to change color, a la the cool but ridiculously expensive Philips Hue. Or, a motion sensor can be built in so you don't have to continually fumble for a light switch. Or, an independent power source can be built in to provide juice in case of a power outage, a la the SmartCharge.

But wait, there's more. Just like the smartphone, an LED bulb can — and, at some point in the next few years, will — absorb the singular functions of dedicated home devices. There is no reason an LED bulb can't also contain a smoke detector, a CO2 detector, a security camera, a Zigbee or Z-Wave module, a Wi-Fi repeater, a thermostat, or just about anything else.

Or, just for kicks, a Bluetooth speaker, a la the AwoX StriimLIGHT, which I'm grooving to as I write this under the glow of its soft light. "Our vision is to build smarter LED things, unobtrusive, fun and useful," says AwoX's director of development, Glenn Adler. There are all kinds of add-on possibilities for LED light bulb manufacturers, but first, they have to convince consumers to buy LED bulbs.

$25 vs. $2

A standard incandescent light bulb costs less than $2. Most LED replacement bulbs cost more than 10 times as much. It's certainly true that LED bulbs represent a substantial long-term value — you don't have to replace them for 25 years, and you can save around $1.50 per bulb per year in electricity costs. At $1.50 times 25 years per bulb, that's, well, whatever the total is, it's way more than the price of a bulb that never blows or needs replacing.

But for consumers facing the immediate store shelf price disparity, the $25 vs. $2 choice is a no-brainer. That's why the residential LED lights represent only two percent of U.S. bulb sales, according to Philip Smallwood, director of LED & lighting research at Strategies Unlimited, and Will Rhodes, the research manager of the lighting and LED group at IHS.

Enter the first LED market disrupter: Cree. In just a year, this 27-year-old LED company has risen to battle Philips for dominance in U.S. residential LED bulb sales. How did Cree achieve this high share so quickly? In March 2013, the company, which makes all its own LED components, unveiled the first quality sub-$10 LED bulb, a 40-watt LED bulb.

Now that Cree has conquered the $10 barrier, others have slowly followed. For instance, Philips eliminated the bulky, ugly, and heavy metal heat sink in its new lightweight 60 watt SlimStyle bulb making a sub-$10 price possible — but reportedly, the bulb buzzes. And if other LED makers similarly eliminate the heat sink and move from expensive sapphire LED chip substrates to cheaper silicon, LED bulb prices should continue to plummet, reducing sticker shock and improving sales.

Once LED penetration reaches some critical mass in the next year or so, Cree and other LED bulb makers will start to add secondary functions. "Once you get people to understand LED economically and it works like an incandescent, you can start to do fun things," agrees Mike Watson, Cree's VP of product strategy. Of course, if you add helpful secondary functions, it also might attract the geek early adopter and speed overall consumer acceptance — but that's just my fantasy.

Let There Be Li-Fi

Perhaps the most illuminating non-illumination secondary LED bulb function is wireless data. In a Ted Talk in July 2011, University of Edinburgh engineering professor Howard Haas demonstrated how LED bulbs could double as a high speed data hotspot using a technology he has dubbed Li-Fi. Haas says visible light contains 10,000 times more spectrum than cellular radio spectrum, and there are 10,000 more light sockets than there are cellular base stations, a total of 14 billion.

That's a lot of hot spots.

Transmitting data via light also is more secure — it has a short range and can't pierce walls, keeping prying NSA folks at bay. Li-Fi is also safer — it can be used in hospitals, planes, or other environments where Wi-Fi causes electromagnetic interference. Li-Fi requires only a small microchip. The LED's visible light is modulated beyond our eyes' ability to notice, but has the theoretical ability to move data at up to 6 Gbps, although initial applications produce only a more LTE-like 5 Mbps throughput.

Li-Fi is just now being commercialized by Haas's company, pureLiFi, but its incorporation into LED bulbs, along with myriad other non-lighting functions, presents seductive world-changing potential — just like the smartphone.

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