Shedding some light on Internet-connected bulbs

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 19, 2012

From The News Desk

Clap on. Used to market The Clapper in the late 80s and early 90s, this phrase exemplifies most "connected home" companies. Whether it's using light bulbs as an alarm clock, transforming a "connected" light into a one-off notification system, or dissuading would-be criminals so Macaulay Culkin can spend the holidays forgotten in his home in peace, a significant amount of effort has gone into recreating the functionality of that decades-old device.

While I admit that there's something appealing about being able to say "Let there be light!" while tapping an iPhone screen, the connected light bulb probably means nothing to the average person. Techies might appreciate the ability to make a light bulb flash every time a hashtag appears on Twitter, or recreating the Bat Signal in employees' homes so they can be alert and ready at a moment's notice (don't get any ideas, employers) but most people probably hear those use-cases, glance at the price tag, and go back to buying whatever bulb is on sale at the local grocery store.

So why light bulbs? Why try to change something that most people only notice when it isn't working? I asked Spark CEO Zach Supalia, whose company is currently looking to raise $250,000 on Kickstarter for its connected bulb solution, and he says that there are two reasons why so many people are trying to change the lights. First, because light bulbs are ubiquitous. Second, because there are so many possible uses for the light bulb that haven't been implemented yet.

I'll concede the first point. (Quick, think of the last place you went that didn't use a single light bulb! Yeah.)But the second, that there are so many things light bulbs could do if only they were connected to the Internet, is a tough pill to swallow. While he has a point – I listed several interesting use cases above – imagine what your grandfather (ha! I didn't say your mother! Take that, techno-stereotypes!) would say if you told him that his light could flash every time he got a text message or an email.

If your grandfather is anything like mine, his response would probably be something like "And why would I want that?" Light bulbs do one thing well, and for most people that's enough. But Supalia and all of the other "Internet of Things" startups and products are banking on these old people kickin' it so the digital natives who expect everything to be connected to the Internet can prove that there's a market opportunity here.

Now, there is one notable exception to this rule: The deaf. A visual notification that a text or email has come in (one more noticeable than a lit-up smartphone screen, of course), or – and we're getting crazy here – that someone is knocking on the door. This segment probably wouldn't be enough for an incandescent revolution, but it's worth mentioning.

"[The Internet of Things is] the kind of thing that will happen over time, and will happen through individual products coming out," Supalia says. He cites Nest, the Internet-connected thermostat created by a former Apple executive, as one example of the possibilities afforded by a connected home.

Supalia could very well be right. There seems to be an uptick in startups that want to take the tools that previously existed separately from the Internet online, and being able to manage our houses and apartments from afar does hold a certain appeal. Unfortunately, despite its ubiquity, the light bulb isn't quite ready for this reinvention, and for many people it probably never will be. Some things are better left un-disrupted.

Clap off.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]