Smart light bulbs developed by Tesla alum

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Stack Lighting's Alba BR30 standard recessed bulb, ready for pre-order

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While Wi-Fi-enabled lighting like the Phillips Hue is nothing new, it still requires making lighting changes via a smartphone app. Stack Lighting, on the other hand, embeds the necessary smarts directly in the bulb, enabling the device to read room conditions and adjust its lighting accordingly, with little to no effort by the user.

Hue takes the switch from the wall and puts it on your phone. A neat feature to be sure, with the ability to dim and change colors all from the comfort of your couch. And while Stack’s LED bulbs also include these functionalities, the company has taken lighting to Internet of Things levels by embedding sensors and microcontrollers, as well as Bluetooth, Zigbee and iBeacon hardware, directly into the bulb. If the rain clouds part and the room suddenly brightens, the Stack bulb’s ambient light sensor picks up the change and automatically dims to appropriate levels according to the new amount of light.

The idea for such smart bulbs came to CEO Neil Joseph while working as a delivery program manager at Tesla Motors. Sitting by the window on a sunny California day at company headquarters, Joseph wondered why the open room’s lights were shining as brightly as ever. If phones and computer screens could automatically adjust for brightness, why not light bulbs? With the market for such bulbs lacking, Joseph left Tesla in late 2013 to start Stack.

A point of emphasis for Joseph and Stack has been to make the light as user-friendly as possible. For the vast majority of users, installation begins with the simple process of screwing the bulb into the socket, plugging the Stack hub into the wireless router, then designating via app whether it’s for home or commercial use.

With standard presets satisfying most user needs – cool blue-white in the morning and warm yellow-white at night – no additional work is required, even from the couch. The bulb’s built-in software does the work for you, picking up your patterns and learning as it goes. It also knows the time of day and occupancy of the room. So when you walk to the kitchen for a late-night snack, the bulb’s motion sensor picks up your movement and provides just enough soft orange glow to help you find your way.

For those interested in customizing their system, the app allows users to create lighting zones with specific bulb behavior. With machine learning in the bulb and at the Wi-Fi hub, occupants unique behavior patterns can be determined and the light adjusted accordingly. And if you don’t want the lights to come on every time Rover trots across the room, you can let the bulb know you have a dog.

But what really sets Stack apart is its potential to be an integral part of an IoT system. Having its light and motion sensors on the same circuit board as its LEDs is the backbone of Stack’s responsive sensor network and the crux of its intellectual property, and allows it to connect to other devices using APIs like those of Nest and HomeKit. But while Nest and its sensors have one or two points of contact within a home, Stack bulbs can be in every room, collecting data analytics and acting as a central IoT nervous system.

Stack’s starter kit of two Alba BR30 standard recessed bulbs and a required Zigbee hub costs US$150 and is available for pre-order, with shipping expected to start in early 2015. Additional bulbs cost $60.

For consumers skittish about the high price tag, upfront costs are offset by a bulb lifespan of 50,000 hours, while Stack’s pilot tests have shown an energy savings between 60 and 80 percent compared to regular LED bulbs. Taking it a step further, Stack's pricing calculator estimates that a 1,500 square foot home using four hours of lighting per day will save $670 to $710 per year compared to incandescent bulbs, a 92 percent savings. Other bulb models, including the ubiquitous Edison style, are to follow.

Product page: Stack Lighting

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