Are ‘Smart Bulbs’ The Next Bright Idea In Energy Efficiency?

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Midwest Energy News. Author credit goes to Dan Haugen.

Zach Supalla had the proverbial light-bulb moment last December while flicking on lamps in a hotel room.

Instead of walking to every corner of the room, wouldn’t it be easier if there was an app for this?

The former McKinsey & Co. analyst went home and founded Spark, a connected lighting company that’s getting ready to release its first product, a socket that connects to a home wireless network and lets people switch light bulbs on and off from their phone or computer.

Spark Socket

image via Spark

The Spark Socket is among a wave of new “smart bulb” products that are about to hit the market. The devices promise to give customers better control over their lighting, as well as more information about their electricity use.

But are they more than cool gadgets? Could they help people save energy and money, as some claim they will?

From start-ups like Spark to tech giants Apple and Google, several companies are betting there’s going to be a market for a better light switch, and some are proving that demand already exists.

In September, a San Francisco inventor raised $1.3 million in a Kickstarter campaign for LIFX, a Wi-Fi-enabled LED light bulb that’s controlled from a smartphone app. More than 9,000 people pledged a minimum of $69 for one of the bulbs.

Apple stores this month started selling an app-controlled LED lighting kit from Philips called Hue, which costs $200 and comes with three bulbs. (Additional bulbs cost $60.) An iPhone or iPad app lets users adjust the hue and brightness.

Google also announced last year that it was collaborating with San Francisco Florida-based Lighting Science Group on an Android-app-controlled LED bulb, and another company,GreenWave Reality, says it’s working on a $20 smart bulb.

‘More than illumination’

Spark, which is based in Minneapolis, is unique in that its product works with any dimmable bulb. The device screws into any socket, similar to a power outlet adapter, and a bulb then screws into the Spark Socket, which will connect to an app via a built-in Wi-Fi module.

Supalla hopes customers will help come up with other uses for the device. The company plans to use open software that will allow any developer to write programs for it. Some of those uses, he hopes, will involve energy conservation.

Another inspiration for the product was his father, who is deaf and uses a flashing light as a doorbell. He hopes the Spark Socket might facilitate more creative uses for light among the deaf community, such as flashing when an urgent text or email arrives.

He’s built a three prototypes, including two that work and one that shows how the finished product will look. The company plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign next month, with a $50 pledge earning backers one Socket once they’re manufactured.

‘We’ve got some ideas’

“The lighting industry has been the lighting industry for 130 years,” says Terry McGowan, engineering and technology director for the American Lighting Association, an industry trade group for residential lighting.

“All of a sudden now what we’re seeing is the electronics industry take a look at the lighting industry and say, ‘hey, we’ve got some ideas,’” says McGowan.

The lighting industry’s innovation usually revolves around cost, efficiency and performance, but in the past couple of years McGowan is seeing more new lighting products that don’t fit those categories.

Midwest Energy News, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping stakeholders, policymakers, and citizens informed of the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system.

  • phor11

    I can see this being used as a replacement to a timer circuit when people are away from the house for extended stays, but would it really be all that useful for daily use?
    While at home, I’m usually closer to a light switch than I am my phone.