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Technology: The Internet of Things - Lighting Control's New Frontier? (5/4/2013)

By Peter Aylett, Archimedia Middle East

Lighting control and motorised window treatments remain one of our industry's most profitable subsystems. They are still limited-distribution, high-margin, specialist-installation systems that are helping to prop up falling profit margins from increasingly commoditised audio and video systems. This is a trend that is specially true at the lower and mid ranges of the market where it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the functionality/cost ratio of a custom system over and above an off-the-shelf retail-purchased plug-n-play solution.

At the upper end of the market where customers expect 'The Best' and are still willing to pay for it (as it happens, I'm writing this whilst sitting in an environment that has a natty RGB colour wash lighting scheme that is doing an excellent job of creating a warm and cosy feel to the surroundings - a Boeing 737-800), there is still no substitute for the specialised equipment we sell. This is no more true than with lighting control, where we already have wireless systems that work superbly and are within the skills set of the majority of electricians. These systems are about to take a huge leap into commoditisation.

Commoditisation

The first sign of lighting control being commoditised can be illustrated with the Phillips Hue system. This comprises RGB LED bulbs that are controlled from a App on a mobile device. No, you don't really want an iPod touch stuck to your wall acting as a lightswitch, but I think you can see where we are going with this. It will not be long before battery-operated switches are available that replace the conventional light switch and communicate directly with this kind of autonomous bulb. These switches will be very low-power and very low-latency and will create a wireless mesh network using probably ZigBee to communicate with each other, and the lights themselves.


The Philips HUE lightbulbs are controllable using an app (right) via the included hue bridge (left) that connects to your wireless router using a network cable and can link up to 50 bulbs simultaneously.

Another sign of things to come can be illustrated by startup company UBE. It is currently trying for funding via Kickstarter to mass-produce its connected dimmers. These are designed to replace a standard in-wall lightswitch and offer dimming, as well as control via mobile devices. Their upmarket offering even offers a multitouch interface to enable more advanced and whole-house functions. Described as 'Internet of Things' devices, these are some of the first of a new breed of embedded network appliance that is soon to rule our world.


The multitouch UBE interface.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a much written about concept that describes how, instead of the Internet being dominated by humans connecting through Ethernet and 802.11x networks, we are going to see billions (have a look at this blog for some numbers - http://blogs.cisco.com/tag/iot/ ) of embedded network devices autonomously connecting together within a home, as well together via the Internet. The next five years' shift to IPv6 will only accelerate this phenomenon due to IPv6's scope of available addresses allowing almost limitless devices to exist on public IP addresses rather than be hidden behind NAT routers.

Although wireless technologies carry on their march towards dominating the connectivity world, I still cannot help worry about all of those communications sharing a limited amount of unlicensed radio spectrum. They key to all of this working reliably is range, and conversely in this case, a lack of it. Just like the reduced range of 5GHz 802.11n helps us to build more robust networks that do not interfere with each other, so low-power IoT devices creating mesh networks should be able to work reliably as their transmissions are barely encroaching on the next door neighbours' networks. The mesh topology also means that the more devices we have, the stronger the network gets. Again, this is counter intuitive to using 802.11x networks.

All of the above will bring lighting control to the masses - indeed interoperable embedded network devices are also the future of systems integration as a whole - but there are many compelling reasons why more 'traditional' methods of lighting control are still very valid:

Aesthetics - consumer-orientated keypads simply cannot compete with the range of styles and finishes provided by most lighting control manufacturers. This is an absolutely critical element of any project that is design-conscious.

Integration - although the four finger swipe on an iPad is a wonderful thing for controlling multiple devices using apps, lighting control companies make it extremely easy to integrate their systems with others. It is not just about a mobile device turning the lights on, it should be about a lighting keypad controlling other subsystems as well.

Reliability - cables still rule the reliability world, and will do for the foreseeable future. When it comes to life systems such as lighting, access control and HVAC control, if you can install a wired system then you should.

Let's not forget the other big light that needs to be controlled - the Sun. Lutron has its Sivoia QS Wireless blinds, and I am sure that other manufacturers will soon offer something similar. Battery operation means that this will only ever be suitable for low-torque/low-power motors and thus only applicable to blinds rather than heavy curtains where the need for mains-powered motors will always apply.


Inside the battery-operated Lutron Sivoia QS Wireless blind headrail.

Retrofit

All of this talk of batteries and wireless brings up the biggest opportunity when discussing IoT and wireless devices - that of retrofit. With the current slump in new construction being a largely global phenomenon, as an Industry we always need to be on the lookout for 'no new wires' solutions that enable us to install into existing homes without the associated upheaval of built-in cabling.

Conclusion

While many of the new wave of lighting products are labelled as 'DIY', they must meet the fundamental requirements of reliability, functionality and margin if they are to be part of your arsenal of solutions to meet the potential needs of clients that would have been out of your reach, as well as retrofit installations.

I will leave you all with a thought project: which areas of our industry, if any, will remain untouched by the IoT phenomenon? Is this trend a threat, an opportunity, or both? As ever, come to the Hidden Wires LinkedIn group to discuss this question and more.

Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA's International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWires.

www.hometechassoc.com

 

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