Get ready to spend. The way we buy home improvement is changing

How did you buy your last thermostat? What about your last door lock? If you don’t know, the odds are that’s about to change. If you do know, the odds are you purchased a connected device in the not too distant past. And as more people embrace the smart home, spending patterns on a whole new class of products is about to shift.

Consumers used to buy a new lock when their old one broke, when they moved into a new place, or maybe during an overall remodel. A new water heater or light switch was the same kind of purchase; not often. A thermostat was likely bought from an HVAC technician as part of a repair or picked up after a repair or energy audit at a home improvement store. But as devices get smarter, consumers are buying them differently.

“The new features we’re adding to traditional home devices changes the way the consumer shops and that changes where they buy it,” said Stuart Lombard, the Co-CEO of Ecobee, a smart thermostat maker. Lombard was in Austin, Texas on Tuesday at an event where we chatted about the company’s new retail shift. He said since the launch of Ecobee’s retail channel in November about 30 percent of its sales are from stores such as Apple, Amazon or other places outside of the traditional HVAC retailers that used to be the primary way consumers purchased the company’s devices.

The new Home Depot thermostat aisle (Ecobee is on the far right.)

The new Home Depot thermostat aisle (Ecobee is on the far right.)

As of Monday, Ecobee is part of the newly revamped thermostat aisle in 70 Home Depot stores, and it expanding its devices to all 800 Best Buy stores by the end of April. This is a pretty big opportunity for the thermostat, which had been sold in Apple stores and on Amazon since November. Lombard isn’t the only executive I’ve spoken to that is noticing the shift.

In a conversation with Mike Watson, the VP of Product Strategy with Cree, a maker of LED light bulbs, after the company had just launched a connected $15 light bulb, I asked about the longevity of LED bulbs and whether or not that would be a problem for consumers wanting to replace them with newer connected versions. He didn’t foresee an issue, saying that he expected people to upgrade when they saw new features worth upgrading for.

As someone who actually has a box of used incandescent bulbs from my various LED upgrades that I use to replace my dumb lights when they burn out, and who views forced obsolescence as both an insult to my budget and the environment, the idea of changing the way we purchase and possibly upgrade our home’s fixtures worries me a bit. By making them smart we may possibly be making them less fixed.

How to add $15 Cree lights to your pricey Philips Hue system

For those of you with the $200 Philips Hue starter kit and maybe a few extra Hue light bulbs, I’ve got some great news. If you’re willing to add white lights to your system, the $15 connected Cree LEDs will connect for half the cost of the $30 Hue Lux lights. The Crees are dimmable and offer a nice incandescent-style light.

I wrote about the Crees when they launched a few weeks ago and mentioned you could connect them to the Philips Hue system or other systems using the ZigBee Light Link standard. They also connect to the Wink hub or app, which is what I initially connected them to. But last night I connected a Cree bulb to my Hue setup just to see if I could figure out how to do it. My first tries failed, and one bulb never connected, but after consulting with Cree’s support, I got a bulb to work.

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Unlike connecting your Hue lights to the bridge — where you want them on when you start the process — the trick to connect the Cree light bulbs is to start with them turned off. Then go to the settings menu on the Hue app and click lights. From there click auto add. When the screen pops up that says searching for lights, turn the lamp or light switch for the lights containing the Cree bulbs on. In about 30 seconds they should pop up on the screen. Then you get the option to rename the bulb or bulbs and carry on with your life.

Andrew bedside is a Cree lamp.

Andrew bedside is a Cree lamp.

Since it is not a colored bulb I was limited in the scenes and recipes I could add the light to, but I could control it from the Hue app and enjoyed having the flexibility of having more of my lights in one place. I can even control the Cree lights now under the Hue channel in If This Then That, giving me more triggers in more rooms.

Updated: This story was updated on Feb. 3 to delete an error. The Hue Lux are not color tunable. They are only dimmable.

Smarter cities could start with a simple light bulb swap

Simply swapping out the old-school incandescent, sodium or metal halide lamps with newer LED bulbs that can also contain an array of sensors can push a city on the path to becoming smarter, said Wim Elfrink the Executive Vice President for Industry Solutions and Chief Globalisation Officer with Cisco. According to Elfrink, while cities are installing the LED lamps they often elect to put in video surveillance and even Wi-Fi access points too.

“We see this as an enormous inflection point,” Elfrink told me during an interview on Thursday. “This could blanket a city in Wi-Fi and enable the city to offer citizen services and we are always looking for what will be that inflection point. The simple light bulb could be it.”

He pointed out that having the video surveillance means that computers could count the number of people in the area and reduce or increase the light based on the amount of foot traffic. More people require less light, cutting down on energy. Of course, not every city will be comfortable with video surveillance in all public areas, and Elfrink says most will start with small pilot projects such as one that is being deployed in Chicago.

The Chicago street lamps don’t use cameras to track people, instead they count the number of people by tracking the number of cell phones as they ping asking for Wi-Fi hot spots. They also track temperature and various weather and pollution data via sensors. In Copenhagen, Elfrink estimates that by placing Wi-Fi access points in about 92 percent of the street lamps you could blanket the entire city with Wi-Fi.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing  the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

The video wall at the DOLL Visitor Center in Copenhagen showing the live feeds of the streets and data visualizations.

And while the Wi-Fi wouldn’t be part of the actual LED bulb, many of the sensors and maybe the camera could be. In fact, many of the smart bulbs coming out in the consumer and commercial markets double as speakers or sensors of some kind or another. Beacons or ambient light sensors seem to be the most popular in the commercial space.

Such plans also require the city to own or have access to dark fiber so it can offer its own services, but the data it can gather and the potential savings it can realize are substantial. For example, there is the obvious savings from more efficient lighting being turned to the most appropriate level, but adding more sensors means the city can better predict weather patterns and position snowplows in areas where the snow is likely to hit hardest, before it happens.

Elfrink says that every city should have an information and telecommunications technology plan, much like they have an urban and economic development plan, so they can understand where the data from these endeavors should go and who owns it. These plans should also detail how the data should be shared across these city instead of being locked up in a single department. For example, if the lighting and power department claimed this data and didn’t share, it would be much less valuable.

Even as cities start with one-off deployments in smart parking or perhaps a connected street lamp pilot, it’s worth thinking about how to bring these disparate forays in the digital realm into a holistic platform that citizens, governments and developers can access and make use of in ways that protect privacy and ensure security of city assets. That can be an overwhelming project, but as Elfrink says, just start with a single light bulb.

Updated: This post was updated January 26, 2015 to correct the spelling of Wim Elfrink’s name.

Like those Philips lighting tracks for TV shows? They take time

Philips and the SyFy channel teamed up again to produce a lighting track for a television show — this time a season of 12 Monkeys — announced at International CES. After experiencing the lighting track for Sharknado, I was keen to see the 12 Monkeys effect. Sadly, I was sick with the flu, so my in-person demo turned into a phone call, but I will make sure I get a chance to watch the show to see the effects tuned to the four Hue lights in my living room

Since I think this sort of immersive entertainment experience is a great use case for splurging on what are admittedly some expensive light bulbs ($60 a pop), and the overall experience is so neat, I’d love to see more movies and shows build lighting tracks to go with their stories.

The lighting tracks sync lighting effects or add mood to the corresponding TV shows. It can be cool like mimicking lighting during a storm or add tension by adding creepy green undertones to a grim scene. Such a track might not add much to The Good Wife, but it would be awesome for Lost or even a show like True Detective.

But in a conversation with the Philips team I found out that creating a lighting track right now takes about 10 to 12 times the length of the show you’re mapping the lights to. So a 40-minute episode of 12 Monkeys takes someone about 8 hours to “score” with lights, according to George Yianni, the Philips Hue creator and architect. Yianni said the person designing the lighting uses an extension of the Philips Hue app added as a plug-in to a program called Watchwith already in use by studios to provide interactive experiences.

Philips is also showing off a similar immersive experience as part of gaming with a game called Chariots, where code to control the Philips Hue lights is written into the game to help indicate things like in-game bonuses, but also add to the immersive experience. Again, this is an awesome idea, although it is similar to an example I heard earlier in the week from Qualcomm as part of its AllJoyn lighting discussion.

As part of Microsoft joining the AllSeen Alliance that promotes the AllJoyn protocol and the smart lighting standard, one of the ideas is to make smart light bulbs react to Xbox and console games in a similar fashion — perhaps not covering the “designed” aspects as much, but flashing red if a player dies or blue if he gets a health boost. In the AllSeen example, though, using the standard would work across any bulbs that implement the code, as opposed to just the Philips Hue bulbs.

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Qualcomm and LIFX partner up for smart lighting reference design

To make it even easier to build a connected light bulb, Qualcomm Atheros and startup LIFX have teamed up to create a Wi-Fi module and software that lets lighting manufacturers get a connected product on the shelves in no time. And if that weren’t enough, anyone can buy a reference design kit containing a connected A19 bulb (the typical lamp bulb) with the connected module and software) from Arrow Electronics, a distributor. Qualcomm will be showing off the module and reference designs in Las Vegas this week at CES.

The goal here is to make the Raspberry Pi of lighting, and see what digital dividends might accrue when people combine connectivity, LEDs and their brains to the concept of lamp bulbs. As someone who talks so much about lighting on her podcast that listeners complain, I’m excited about the possibilities. Qualcomm Atheros and LIFX are already working with established lighting manufacturers such as Havells Sylvania and home networking leaders such as D-Link to build smart lighting products.

Using the Wi-FI module and LIFX software means the light bulb won’t need a hub because instead of the lower-power ZigBee mesh standard, the light bulb will just be able to hop directly on the Wi-Fi network. The manufacturer will have a choice of using colorful lights or white lights, which will impact the overall price of the bulb. A Qualcomm spokesman was unable to offer any sense of price as that would be set by the end customer. Typical LED connected bulbs can run the gamut from $15 for the connected white Wink bulbs to $99 for the colorful LIFX bulbs.

It’s worth noting that the Qualcomm module and LIFX software will work with the new All Seen Alliance standard for lightbulbs which means it should work with other AllSeen Alliance member’s products. This means that future games from fellow member Microsoft running on the Xbox might be able to turn your lights red when you get killed or flick your on and off when your baby’s Sproutling monitor wants to let you know something is wrong.

The lighting module and LED bulb reference design are available now.

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