Everything is Getting Smarter

June 12, 2013 Allan Baril

You may be skeptical that something as simple as an internet-connected lightbulb would change the world. I was, too.

Philips recently released an open API for ‘hue,’ its smartphone controlled lighting system. When I originally heard about hue lights, I thought, “That’s pretty cool, but not sure what I’d do with lights that I can control with my smartphone.” Once they released an open API though, the conversation became, “What can’t I do with lights that I can easily control through software?” My curiosity led me to purchase a set to play around with.

What do Smarter Lights really mean?

My first project with hue consisted of creating a “wake-up light” alarm that would not only wake me up Monday through Friday with a slow, gentle light but would also hint at the weather for the day by adjusting the color of the light. A shade of blue indicates that I’d need my umbrella, while a vibrant orange tells me that it’s going to be a beautiful day.

Sunny day Rainy day

Using a Raspberry Pi (a $35 computer around the size of a deck of cards) as the “brains” and node.js, I was able to quickly bring my wake-up light to life; it also helped that someone has already written a great node.js module to simplify the interface to the hue lighting system.

Raspberry Pi

Once I had my wake-up light, I was hooked. I quickly realized that it would be great if the light in my front entrance would automatically turn on for me when I arrived home. After thinking for a bit on how I could have the system detect my presence, I realized the one thing that always goes where I go is my iPhone. I was able to write some simple software to determine the presence of my iPhone at home by checking to see if it’s on my home WiFi network. From there it was pretty simple to have the front entrance light turn on and off when I arrive or leave. Of course, turning the other lights off became a nuisance, so a couple of lines of code later and voila – a system that automatically turns the lights off when I leave home. Source code for the project is available here.

The Internet of Things

While I was creating these projects, it really hit home for me how much the mobile revolution is enabling home automation and the wider “internet of things.” Home automation has been a dream of techies for a long time. The X10 communication protocol, developed for this purpose, dates back to the mid-70s when computers required large areas of a room. When Bill Gates designed his mansion in the late 90s, he had it wired for automation. Mobile smartphones have brought us cheap and powerful processors that sip power. So why is it that we’re still surrounded by the venerable light switch and mercury switch-driven thermostat? These existing technologies are simple, cheap and have served their purpose, but as computing power and networking is increasingly available everywhere, the benefits in overall energy saving and convenience to the end user start to enable a wider adoption for new, modern technologies.

Mobile Makes us Smarter

Before mobile devices, the race for new CPUs was driven by increasing performance, with energy usage and size taking second seats. Mobile has made tiny, cheap computers like the Raspberry Pi possible. Mobile devices have also introduced us to the concept of always having a computer with us. What’s different is that it not only computes, but it senses the environment around us, letting us know where we are, adjusting screen brightness automatically, indicating what’s nearby, etc. Mobile devices have increasingly made these sensors cheaper and ubiquitous. Mobile has also popularized short-range networking technologies like Bluetooth, NFC and Zigbee, making it easier to have many connected devices in a home or building.

Philips is far from the only company exploring the space. For those interested, have a look at Nest, LIFX, Ubi, Lockitron, WeMo, and SmartThings. I look forward to seeing more cool, connected (and open) products like Philips’ hue lights, and how these connected devices change the way we interact with our environment. Mobile may just be the key enabling technology to do that.

Unboxing the Philip’s Hue lights

Connect with Allan on LinkedIn.

About the Author

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