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Once upon a time light fixtures just illuminated spaces and then along came the internet of things (IoT). The IoT turns “things,” like lights, into connected things. As buildings became smart buildings, lighting found itself in the perfect position to act as a platform for a wide variety of IoT applications.

The ceiling has long been the domain of the light fixture but IoT savvy lighting firms realized that it is also the ideal place from which to sense an environment. However, by transforming their lighting services into an IoT offering, lighting firms have entered the unfamiliar world of IT and into in direct competition with IT vendors.

A key development that has made this all possible is the emergence of LEDs as a lighting source. “Lighting is undergoing a rapid transformation as LEDs become the number one source of light in buildings. This is the single most important driver for the growth of Bus-based lighting controls and their convergence with IT Networks and integration into the Building Internet of Things,” we explained in our most recent lighting report Smart Buildings: The Lighting Controls Business.

Now 100 year old lighting brands such as Phillips, GE and OSRAM are rubbing shoulders with the likes of Intel, IBM and Cisco. They don’t have the same range abilities of course, but they are now playing on the same field; teaming up, complementing one another and in some cases competing for the same business.

In March this year lighting stalwart OSRAM won a contract with a Swiss fashion retail company that managed brand stores such as Guess and Marc O’Polo in the European nation. However, the contract was not for lights, it was to install wireless radio chips that transmit signals such as Bluetooth, beating high-tech firms such as Ericsson at their own game. Furthermore, OSRAM does not source these Bluetooth transmitters, they manufacture them themselves.

OSRAM also sells luminaires that contain built-in Bluetooth transmitters, a product they call Einstone LED, which they have installed in retail outlets and other facilities around the world. Their contract in Switzerland however, was just for the Bluetooth transmitters for indoor positioning and digital marketing via smartphones, effectively making OSRAM an IT vendor who also has a lighting offering.

“In this case, we used an Einstone track adapter to integrate the Einstone beacons into the lighting infrastructure of the respective stores,” an Osram spokesperson said. “The advantage of this procedure was that retailers could simply retrofit Einstone in the existing lighting infrastructure — without any need to change the whole lighting.” And now with their recent acquisition of Digital Lumens they’re expanding even further into IoT offerings for smart buildings.

Philips and GE have developed similar indoor positioning offerings for the retail sector. Philips chose to join forces with IT players through its ‘Location Lab’ platform, which invites IT companies such as Microsoft and SAP to develop compelling data-linked apps. In doing so they hope to position themselves in the heart of the retail indoor positioning market by benefiting from the expertise of long-established IT vendors.

“Our Location Lab partners are as important to us as apps to a smartphone,” said Parik Chopra, Philips Lighting’s segment leader for retail and hospitality. “The value a building owner derives from our indoor-positioning system increases with the number of complementary products and services we offer. With our partners, we are able to turn our customers’ vision into reality and enable them to differentiate through shopper convenience and staff efficiency.”

Philips is also branching into the smart city through a partnership announced on Monday, September 11th, with transmission real estate firm American Tower Company. The companies will develop “smart street poles” embedded with cellular gear for 4G and 5G phone and broadband services. The poles will also provide illumination but even that will be connected to a smart control system and other smart city operations.

“The alliance between the world’s largest lighting company and Boston-based American Tower Company marks the latest example of how the lighting industry is pushing hard into information and communications technology in order to secure a future that links lighting into IoT schemes,” explains LED expert Mark Halper.

IT firms are pushing hard too however, we might consider Cisco’s Digital Ceiling as a foray into the domain of the lighting firms but through the IoT. While British IT firm Cad-Capture has installed an IoT occupant tracking system in Barclays London headquarters that circumvents the usual lighting based sensors in favor of boxes mounted underneath employees’ desks. Their OccupEye system feeds occupancy data into a cloud-connected dashboard that enables clients to see how efficiently they are using their space.

In the IoT age, the IT industry hoped to capitalize on physical things by bringing them into the cyber world. In doing so, however, they opened the cyber door to physical product manufacturers who, in the case of lighting, have seized the opportunity to enter the IT market. For the so-called “lighting giants,” illumination now makes up just a small portion of their offering, in fact most have now divested their luminaries business.

The new cyber-physical world, as the name suggests, has brought these two previously distinct elements into alignment. What may once have been thought of as a new physical frontier for IT companies is proving to be the perfect cyber opportunity for “old world” sectors like lighting.

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