Architecture and Hardware

Leds: Beyond Lighting

A Carrefour retail store.
Carrefour, one of the world’s largest retail chains, partnered with Philips to install smart lights in its stores that track shoppers and beam down information and pop-up deals to their smartphones.

Remember when indoor lights were for illumination? How old-fashioned! Or how when LED bulbs were synonymous with energy savings? Well, they still do slash electricity consumption compared to incandescent-bulb technology, but that is now only part of their story.

Get ready for the biggest act of digital convergence since the Internet took Big Media and Big Telecom by storm. This time it is happening in the lighting world. LED bulbs are, after all, semiconductors at their core – the acronym stands for light-emitting diode – so they lend themselves readily to digital control and network connectivity.

Thus, they are emerging as vital nodes in the fledgling Internet of Things, in which any object that can be digitized will be, and will communicate with other objects, systems, and people. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates some 30 billion objects could be connected to the Internet by 2020. Lighting, with all of its ubiquity, should become one of the key components.

Under the roofs of retailers, commercial office buildings, homes, schools, warehouses, and factories, LEDs and sensors are, like their outdoor brethren, watching and collecting data. Using both wired and wireless connectivity, they are transmitting their observations to central locations, to the cloud, or to other objects to analyze and to take action.

Retail giants Target in the U.S. and Carrefour in France are experimenting with ceiling lights that track customers around stores and ping their smartphones with promotions; the same systems can send customer information off to analytical databases to offer the consumer tailored discounts in the future. Amsterdam’s modern office building The Edge relies on lights to detect occupancy and adjust both lighting levels and heating, and to know when to dispatch cleaners. In Florida, Miami-Dade County Public Schools have tied their ceiling lights into Internet controls to adjust brightness, and even color temperatures, in accordance with students’ circadian rhythms and attentiveness at different times of the day. London’s Cavendish Conference Center has installed iPad-controlled LED strip lighting in the long rows of frosted-glass tabletops of its tiered auditorium, helping companies establish the right ambiance or even esprit de corps.

These are all pioneering examples in the wide-open space of connected lighting, all made possible by the unprecedented transition of lighting from the analog world of filaments and gas tubes to the digital, connected, data-linked world of LEDs.

A Computer Where a Light Bulb Used to Be

"The combination of LEDs and analytics puts a computer where a light bulb used to be," General Electric (GE) CEO Jeff Immelt said earlier this year. "Today, lighting is becoming a high-tech infrastructure business. It is a gateway for most energy management solutions."

That explains why GE, the world’s third-largest lighting company after Holland’s Philips and Germany’s Osram, in October folded its commercial and industrial LED lighting business into an energy services group called Current. The new group is a key constituent of Immelt’s "industrial Internet" strategy of embedding sensors in everything from bulbs to turbines to jet engines. The sensors gather performance and maintenance information and transmit that data to help analyze and improve the operations of the object and of related items and processes. In lighting, a net-connected LED bulb can communicate with other sensor-equipped items like solar panels and batteries to help optimize energy systems.

Driving home the point that lighting is now a digital and data business, GE in November named former IBM executive Jeff Gordon as Current’s chief digital officer. Gordon had been vice president of solutions at IBM’s Watson, a business unit that markets cloud computing and big data services powered by IBM’s Watson supercomputer.

While GE has talked openly about its intentions to deploy intelligent lighting schemes outdoors and is trialing them in cities including San Diego, CA, and Jacksonville, FL, it has also been quietly experimenting with indoor connected lighting. For example, it has piloted "indoor positioning" technology with two retailers in the U.S. and two in Europe which, like the Target and Carrefour examples, would track customers and deliver promotions.

GE is struggling to make a profit on LED bulbs themselves – the bulbs are costly and they supposedly last for decades, pulverizing the after-sale market – so treating them as a tool in a service-model potentially restores their long-term financial outlook.

Philips is struggling with the same challenge, so much so that the Dutch corporation is trying to sell its lighting division. To help shape itself up for the convergence era, Philips Lighting in December struck a deal with IT stalwart Cisco to jointly offer connected lighting systems that tie LED luminaires into Ethernet networks.

Power over Ethernet

The two companies say so-called "Power over Ethernet" (PoE) provides some key benefits. For one, it routes electricity to LEDs via Ethernet cable rather than over costly electrical cables, cutting expenses in new builds and renovations. LED bulbs run on low voltages Ethernet cable can safely handle; traditional electrical cabling routes 120 volts or 240 volts to LEDs, which typically knock them down to 12 volts with transformers.

The other key advantage of PoE is that the same Ethernet cables can carry information to LED luminaires that can control their brightness, on/off states, and color and color temperature, among other features. Philips has provided a PoE system (and other lighting technology) at The Edge, and has worked with Cisco to implement PoE lighting at Cisco’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto.

PoE has already transformed other areas, such as telephony – it underpins the Voice over IP (VoIP) phones common in offices today – and could well do the same in lighting.

"The world is becoming digital, and by working with Philips, we can help building owners more quickly digitize their lighting networks to drive better user experiences and efficiency," said Edwin Paalvast, Cisco’s senior vice president of EMEA and Russia and executive sponsor of the Cisco–Philips Alliance, as it is known.

The many benefits of PoE lighting include the possibility for reducing energy costs – smart controls can recognize when lights are not needed or may be dimmed. Another benefit – and one still openly debated – is the potential to adjust lighting to match human circadian rhythms, as Miami-Dade schools are doing. White light tuned toward a blue frequency (cold light) could serve to stimulate, while red-tuned white light could support relaxation.

"When you move light sources to LEDs, which are semiconductors, you can start to do interesting things with it, so the circadian rhythm play-list coupled to white light – that’s going to be the future of white light in buildings," said Matt Laherty, CEO of Platformatics, a Bloomington, IN, PoE specialist.

Here Come the Startups

Platformatics is one of many young companies springing up to chase the brave new world of connected lighting. Gooee, of Santa Clara, CA, makes wireless chipsets and sensors for luminaire manufacturers. amBX, of Middlesbrough, U.K., makes PoE software and was the provider of equipment to the Cavendish Conference Center in London. Innovative Lighting of Roland, IA, and NuLEDs of Carlsbad, CA, make PoE luminaires (NuLEDs furnished the hardware for Miami-Dade schools).

Another company, Boston-based ByteLight, makes "visible light communication" (VLC) technology that embeds data in the invisible flickering wavelengths of LED ceiling lights and transmits it to smartphones. Target and Carrefour are both trialing VLC; Carrefour uses Philips’ version, while Target has not disclosed its provider. ByteLight, the provider of equipment for some GE trials, was acquired by Atlanta-based LED vendor Acuity Brands. Google’s Nest unit, which makes smart controls for home heating and other stems, now works with different brands of intelligent residential LED bulbs. Scotland’s pureLiFi makes technology to use LEDs to transmit Wi-Fi signals.

"The market is happening," said Laherty at Platformatics. "It’s no longer just proof of concept and idea. Companies are starting to position themselves to take advantage of the opportunity. I think this is as big a transition as the transition from the gas lamp to the electric light. All of these guys in the legacy lighting business are going to have to have a strategy here."

Or, to twist the words of GE’s Immelt, the traditional lighting industry is going to have work smart and hard at keeping its turf, lest Big Internet march all over it.

Mark Halper is a freelance journalist based near Bristol, England. He covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles.

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