“Is The Light Switch Doomed?” asks serial entrepreneur Andrew Weinreich during his podcast ‘Predicting Our Future’. In the episode, Weinreich poses fundamental questions on the future of lighting to several executives from leading lighting firms.
“Today, you walk into a room, and if you want the lights on, you’ll flick a switch on the wall. What is the ideal way that this should work in a smart home?” he asks. “Would you find it easier to take out your phone, open an app, and turn on the light from there? Maybe not,” he points out. By considering what is actually better than the light switch Weinreich has found an innovative way to explore the future of lighting.
“What if the room just knew you were in it and turned on the lights for you? Could we ever get to a place where there would be no light switch in the wall and the home would simply understand our intentions before we articulated them?” he continued.
Weinreich’s first guest was Neil Orchowski, Product Development Manager for Strategic Alliances at Lutron, who produce light switches and dimmers in the US. The firm’s product offerings suggest they still believe the light switch has a place in our modern world. Their Caséta Wireless product line utilizes traditional light switch fixtures to house wireless switches and dimmers. They also offer a removable wall mounted remote control, offering the best of both worlds, they claim.
“Imagine a hallway where you come in from your front door and there’s a switch at the start of the hallway and you walk down the hallway to where your bedrooms are and maybe it wasn’t wired to have a switch there. But that’s really where you want to control the lights and turn the lights back off so you don’t have to walk all the way down to the end of the hallway,” Orchowski says. “You could hire an electrician to pull wires and install an analog switch there or use this Pico remote control.”
However, others in the industry think the traditional light switch is old fashioned and we have no place for it in our futuristic smart homes and buildings. Beyond lighting we are already seeing this switchless future emerging. The new range of Sonos speakers for example, have no physical button or switches, control of the device is managed entirely from a smartphone app. So if you don’t have the app, you won’t be able to control the device. That might be alright for a speaker but turning a light on/off needs to be much quicker and accessible to anyone at anytime.
“When we started down this journey, one hypothesis I had was that we could really liberate ourselves from the light switch. And I think that by having this first level that’s controlled by your phone, it does give you a certain independence from that,” explains Jeff Patton, General Manager of Connected Home Products within GE Lighting. “You can essentially use your phone as a remote control. As we roll out scheduling, that gives you another degree of freedom from the light switch.”
The Lutron system utilized wall fixtures but these “smart switches” still needed some form of installation by an electrician, or someone with technical knowledge. GE Lighting meanwhile, are offering WiFi-enabled smart light bulbs, meaning users can connect directly with the bulb to control the lighting, rather than running the system through a switch. Patton and GE believe in a switchless future but also understand that this kind of shift does not happen overnight.
“Our in-home studies that we’ve done have shown that there’s still value in having a light switch of sorts. How we define that switch and its utility is certainly changing. It’s not the switch that we’ve had for the last hundred years. This is your one way to control your lighting in a space,” says Patton. “When you walk in and out, now you have all these options between the remote control that I’m saying your phone is to a schedule. As we roll out more elements, you get more on-demand control via voice.”
So Lutron has opted for smart switches, GE is pushing for a switchless future, a third player – Philips Lighting – has gone another direction. The Philips Hue lighting range, while also incorporating smart bulbs, works through a central hub – as explained by Sridhar Kumaraswamy, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Hue Home Systems.
“The architecture is such that you always need the hub. The hub does three different things. It manages the Zigbee network – the network which controls the light points. It acts as a bridge between the Zigbee network and the IP side and then acts as a gateway to the Internet. Then perhaps most importantly, it has . . . our lighting operating system,” said Kumaraswamy.
Philips has long been a key player in the lighting space, central to the commercialization of the incandescent light bulb in the early 20th century, and at the forefront of redefining lighting today. “Within our team, we have this debate as to where this is headed, but the conclusion that we are coming down to is that switches, as we see it right now, are not going to disappear anytime soon,” said Kumaraswamy. “We don’t see that in the medium-term. When I talk about medium-term, I’m looking at a horizon of the next five to seven years.”
Lighting is undergoing an evolutionary leap but the distance and direction is not yet clear. Our lighting controls report calls this “the most exciting time for the lighting industry since the early twentieth century,” explaining that, “lighting is truly at an inflection point and the forthcoming shakeout will determine the winners and losers in the game.” It seems that the fate of the humble light switch is at the center of this shakeout and is set to color our smart future.