The LIFX lightbulb: Bringing the Internet of things to electricity

Lynne Kiesling

The LIFX lightbulb is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a while, even in a period of substantial innovation affecting many areas of our lives. It’s a Kickstarter project, not coming from an established company like GE or Philips, not coming from within the electricity industry. Go watch the intro video, and then come back … you back? So how cool is that? Wifi enabled for automation and remote control from your smartphone. Automation of electricity consumption at the bulb level. You can set your nightstand bulb to dim and brighten according to your sleep cycle. It’s an LED bulb, so it can change colors, any combination in the Pantone scale, from your phone, anywhere. And, as an LED bulb, you get all of these automation and aesthetic features in a low-energy, low-carbon package.

This discussion of their project provides insight into the entrepreneurial future of consumer-facing energy technology — it’s not about the hardware, it’s about the software:

The LIFX app is one of our favorite aspects of the entire project, and we’ve spent countless hours thinking about how you can interact with your lights. We have mapped out a very smooth configuration UX from the app to the LIFX master bulb. In essence you place your LIFX smartbulb into a light socket, turn the switch on and then launch the app. You will be guided through a process of choosing your home network from a list and then entering your password. The LIFX master bulb will then auto configure itself to your router and all the slave bulbs will auto connect to the master. If you add more slave bulbs down the track  these will also auto connect.

Regarding security: LIFX will be as secure as your WiFi network. eg. without the WiFi network password you can’t control the smartbulbs.

We’re aware that while the hardware is the most visible and interesting part of this project our software is the soul.

This. This is the right thing to do, from my perspective, from both economic and environmental perspectives. And while I think Kevin Tofel at Greentech is right that there’s a network architecture issue here (separate control systems vs. a single server capturing and implementing your automation decisions throughout the house), a system like LIFX’s seems to me to be flexible enough to be incorporated into a whole-house energy management setup. And, given how enthusiastically consumers have adopted wireless mobile technologies, that seems to be a good place to start to get consumers comfortable with this degree of automation and functionality. Transactive capabilities and dynamic pricing are next! Unless our electricity network is transactive it’s not smart, and intelligent end-use devices (and the connectivity to network them for automation) create value for consumers from that intelligence.

Note also the implications of software like LIFX’s for having electricity enter the Internet of Things. As sensors and the connectivity among them become ubiquitous, we can automate our consumption decisions much more deeply, at a much more granular level (down to the bulb, here), in ways that do not inconvenience us. We can use the technology to make ourselves better off by automating our choices in response to variables we care about, which eventually will include variables like the retail price of electricity and the carbon content of the fuel used to generate it. The Internet of Things reflects Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

The Internet of Things enables mass customization and the ability of each individual to choose a bundle, a set of features, a price contract that they expect to bring them the most net benefits. This is a dramatic technological and cultural break from the century-long custom and regulatory practice of uniform products, uniform quality, uniform pricing as a matter of social policy. The public interest ethic of uniformity ties us to mediocrity, to the extent that it constrains what features and pricing people can bundle and consume with technologies like these.

Another Internet of Things implication here is that, with each bulb having a unique sensor and identifier, we will generate very detailed, granular data about how the connected, sensing devices operate. Such “big data” can help us use less energy, save money, do more with less, and lots of other things I can’t imagine but some other entrepreneur will, and will bring to market, if regulation doesn’t stifle it, and with clear stipulations of consumer privacy and property rights in their data.

You can also tell that this is an interesting topic when I am not the first economist to write about it! I love seeing my colleagues interested in electricity-related technologies. Mark Perry shares my enthusiasm about the application of human creativity to generate such a product. Josh Gans shares my enthusiasm for the networking, the interoperability, and the open architecture. And Felix Salmon offers a worthy note of caution about the ability of LIFX to deliver on its promised features and timeline, given the time delays experienced in other Kickstarter projects.

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3 thoughts on “The LIFX lightbulb: Bringing the Internet of things to electricity

  1. “Transactive capabilities and dynamic pricing are … just another way for the nanny state to run your life.”

    Technically, dynamic pricing is more like a way for everyone else’s production and consumption patterns to run your life – or at least one small corner of it. This is more Hayek state than nanny state.

  2. Shorewalker: Awaken from your dogmatic slumbers. Won’t people who regulate your soda cup leap at the opportunity to regulate your refrigerator?

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