Zigbee®, Z-Wave®, Bluetooth®, Wink…different protocols being used in lighting and home automation can lead to a lot of confusion for consumers and professionals.

With so many different ways to wirelessly connect devices to lighting these days, the market is getting as complicated as it is crowded.

With each edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES®) in January, there are new home automation and lighting control technologies to learn about — and just when you’ve got the jargon and products down, an update or new system
debuts that makes the previous one obsolete.

For example, last year at CES Samsung unveiled its Smart Home software protocol (SHP) to connect its products together (with the idea of making the protocol available to other manufacturers who opt in), but before the year was out Samsung acquired SmartThings, which offers a hub system (compatible with GE lighting products) that expanded its range of compatibility. 

On the other hand, Nest® (which was bought by Google last year) can control your thermostat washing machine, sprinklers, door locks, and smoke alarms, but the only lighting compatible with it is Hue from Philips. If not all of the light bulbs you want to control are Hue, then you need to add another system to control those.

And much like how the jocks don’t talk to the nerds in high school, the Z-Wave® and Zigbee® protocols don’t communicate. The lack of standardization among the different types of home automation and lighting control systems can make installers, sales associates, and consumers nuts.

In lieu of any universally accepted standardization, the non-profit association ZigBee Alliance was formed back in 2002 – consisting of various companies, government agencies, and schools – to agree and adhere to an accepted “standard” by consensus.

At this year’s CES, Osram Sylvania debuted its LIGHTIFY system of connected lighting kits that can be controlled and automated via an app on a smartphone or mobile device.

Aaron Ganick, head of Osram Sylvania’s LIGHTIFY system, says some of his concerns are that companies who are introducing lighting controls are more rooted in technology (i.e. Google, Samsung) than lighting.

“There are plenty of connectivity companies offering light bulbs that aren’t true 60-watt replacements,” Ganick says. Since Osram Sylvania is an expert in lighting, “the first order of business was to make sure our lighting product was good by lighting professionals’ standards [before offering a method for controlling it],” he explains.

Bluetooth®, while widely popular, doesn’t have an official “standard” either. The caveat is that even though products might be marked Bluetooth and Zigbee, there is a chance that there might be some minor communication issues.

“Think of it as speaking the same language, but in different dialects,” Ganick says. “We certify our products as Zigbee Home Automation. We back our products with a standard that is proven [through the Zigbee Alliance].”   

Both Bluetooth and Zigbee use what is referred to as “mesh networking.” According to Bluetooth’s online blog, “A mesh network has a topology whereby all devices can communicate with all other devices in the network – either directly if in range – or indirectly via one or more intermediate “nodes” if they are not. This is in contrast to other network types that often feature a central hub like a router, through which all traffic must flow. Mesh networks have no such central hub and offer multiple ways of getting data from one device to another.”

There have been complaints from consumers using the hub technique (which Z-Wave, Quirky’s Wink, and SmartThings operate on) when there are multiple devices on the system or if one is located too far from the hub. Ganick confirms that in a mesh-networking system this particular problem is solved because of the aforementioned “nodes” that relay info to neighboring nodes.

What lighting showrooms need to consider is how they want to handle lighting controls and the various methods now available to consumers. “Samsung offers the best mobile experience, but how does that translate to other elements in home automation,” Ganick says. “You have to trust in each manufacturer offering best-in-class products.”

In an age where consumers can text their refrigerators (LG’s HomeChat service permits homeowners to send text messages to their home appliances to control things as diverse as setting the power to vacation mode to inventorying what is in the fridge), lighting will also become a bit more complex…even as it is getting more “simple.”

“We already have automated products [that typically need input from the user], but I want my smart devices to make the decisions for me,” Ganick says of the next evolution in the controls area. “Nest has done so well because it is simple. It learns what your temperature preference is.”

Regarding lighting, Ganick predicts more options in the downlight category in the future. He points to a rise in lighting products that offer tunable white, where consumers can change the color temperature from cool to warm daylight.

“The beauty of tunable light is that the customer doesn’t have to think, ‘What color temperature should I buy and can I live with it forever?’ Instead, they have a choice of colors, depending on what they are doing or the time of day.” 