Smart Light Bulb Saves Energy as It Learns

Stack Lighting has a goal: eliminate the light switch. Will its smart LED bulb make that happen?

We’ve seen basic LED bulbs and smart bulbs that can change hue and brightness through a smartphone app. Both kinds save energy but even the “smart” bulbs require human intervention in order to change their appearance. Now there’s a bulb that saves energy, adjusts its light intensity based on ambient room light, and adapts itself to your lifestyle. Stack Lighting, a new company that includes engineers from NASA, Tesla, HP, and Google, recently entered the LED bulb market with the Alba:

Alba is priced to compete with the Philips Hue, selling for $60 per bulb. An Alba starter kit with two bulbs and a hub sells for $150. Unlike the Hue, the Alba is capable of making automatic adjustments based on time of day, ambient room light, and a user’s programmed preferences.

Color Temperatures (Hues)

White light (also called “cool” or “natural” light) improves productivity and alertness. It’s great for work and for reading. Warm light (sometimes called “soft” light), which is closer to the yellow end of the spectrum, helps create a relaxing ambience. Both have an effect on a person’s circadian rhythms, sleep patterns, productivity, and overall well being. Alba can adjust its hue based on the time of day and the user’s preferences.

The Alba doesn’t provide the multi-colored “disco light” feature that the Hue offers; it’s strictly a cool-to-warm spectrum. I think that’s a pretty good tradeoff; they added more intelligence to the bulb, which of course costs more money, and to offset that cost they eliminated a feature that’s more for show than for regular use. (Having grown up in the 70s, I can certainly live without disco lights.)

Adaptable Plug-and-Play

Alba works right out of the box with a set of default settings for light levels, hues, and times. Using its app, a user can then make adjustments according to one’s lifestyle. At any time, the app can override default or programmed settings. Like the Nest thermostat, the bulb can learn by tracking the user’s manual adjustments over time. In fact, Stack sees a future where devices like the Alba and the Nest communicate with each other to create the perfect environment while saving energy. That future has no light switches – just smart lights and apps. I’m not sure I’d want my entire house controlled exclusively by a smartphone app; I think a centrally-located wall-mounted controller would be a good option.

A Day in the Light

First thing in the morning, Alba’s default settings will turn the lights on to a cool hue that gradually brightens. This helps wake the user without being too abrupt. As the day gets naturally brighter, the bulb will dim itself in order to save energy while maintaining a constant brightness. If it senses that the room is empty, it turns off the lights. When a person enters the room the lights automatically turn on to the optimal level and hue.

In the evening the Alba slowly adjusts to a warm setting, creating more of a mood lighting effect. And as the night progresses, it continues to dim the lights, reminding you (or the annoying guest that just won’t leave) that it’s approaching bedtime. If it senses movement in the middle of the night, Alba will turn the light on to a dim, warm setting, providing just enough light to help a person reach their destination without eliciting a full wakeful state.

Motion Sensors and Smart Controls

Stack claims that sophisticated lighting controls for commercial locations can cost $100,000 or more. Each Alba comes with an array of embedded occupancy sensors and light sensors, eliminating the additional wiring, circuitry, and expense of adding the sensors and controls separately. Adding intelligence to the lights themselves, as opposed to using a separate control system, ensures that the lights and controls are fully compatible.

The bulbs communicate through a Zigbee wireless mesh network. One hub is sufficient for 50,000 bulbs; the hub can talk directly to the nearest bulbs, which can then relay information to other bulbs in the network. While 50,000 is overkill for a home user, Stack has its eyes on the commercial market too.

Energy Savings and Analytics

Lighting accounts for 25% of the electricity used today. Based on case studies at pilot commercial locations, Stack estimates that an array of Alba bulbs can reduce energy consumption by up to 80% when compared to other LED bulbs.

Commercial enterprises are always looking to save money, and lighting efficiency is a hot topic among building managers today. Stack is developing analytic software to help businesses determine lighting needs and energy savings. The company plans to roll out the analytics at the same time that they release their bulbs for commercial applications. For now they’re cutting their teeth on the residential market.

Calling All Engineers

Stack Lighting’s CEO and founder, Neil Joseph, was working at his desk at Tesla Motors when he noticed all the bright sunlight coming into his office and wondered why the lights were on at full intensity. That’s when he decided to leave Tesla and start his own company. I often tell my students that in today’s market, the job you get might be the job you create for yourself. If you’re not ready to go out on your own but want to be part of a young upstart company, Stack is looking for electronic, mechanical, and software engineers to help develop its product line and software analytics. Ah, if I were 20 years younger…

Coming Soon…

Stack Lighting plans to ship the first wave of Albas early in 2015. Alba is designed as a screw-in replacement BR30 flood light, but the company is also working on bulbs for recessed lighting, A19 (“round”) bulbs, tubes to replace fluorescent lights, and more.

Other smart lighting companies have come and gone. Philips has the advantage of being an established corporation with deep pockets for R&D and marketing. It’ll be interesting to see how well the Alba and its siblings stack up against the competition. I have a feeling that regardless of whether Stack Lighting survives as a company, its ideas will surely change the lighting market.

Image and Video courtesy of Stack Lighting