Industry leaders from around the globe predicted the next evolution in controls and warned that the lighting controls market is in danger of getting usurped by other industries.

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Just as the type of light sources gaining dominance over the past 10 years has changed rapidly from incandescent to compact fluorescent to LED, the controls market is undergoing a similar revolution.

At the Hong Kong International Lighting Fair, experts from leading lighting companies participated in a panel discussion on the topic. For example, Megaman went from offering entirely CFL in 2009 to an overwhelming proportion of LED products today. “This is what’s happening in the whole industry,” noted Fred Bass, Managing Director for Neonlite, the brand owner of MEGAMAN® products in the UK. “We’ve changed our channels to market.”

With the LED revolution has come another shift: lighting products and controls used to be separate entities, but now they are being combined into one product. This whole idea of “smart lighting” – where lighting is linked to a mobile device – has been spreading like wildfire. Whether it’s the surging popularity of Casambi – a third-party platform based on the dual-protocol Nordic nRF51822 SoC and designed to take smart lighting mainstream by integrating with LED smart bulbs, drivers, and lighting fixtures – or Osram’s Lightify (featured in last month’s edition of enLIGHTenment Magazine), or Philips’ Hue (which sold out in Germany within hours of being available on the market), the mass consumer public is embracing Bluetooth-enabled lighting controls. One of the advantages of Bluetooth controls, according to the panelists, is that they do not require a driver or transformer like Zigbee.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”650″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]According to a Berg Insight Smart Home report, it is estimated that 36 million homes in Europe and North America will be “smart” by 2017.[/mks_pullquote]

More importantly, there are consolidations and mergers occurring in the technology sector that will impact the lighting controls industry. For one thing, “controls” are encompassing a wide variety of functions that include heating and security.  When Google bought Nest Labs for $3.2 billion (cash!) early last year, the news resonated with lighting industry leaders.

“It’s possible – and very likely – that tech companies and not the lighting controls companies will be influencing the future of lighting controls,” one panelist said.

Following the success of Hue in Europe and in the U.S., there are a host of companies on Philips’ heels, ready to launch RGB-changing Wi-Fi bulbs for residential and light commercial (i.e. restaurants, boutiques) purposes.

“Lighting controls represents approximately two percent of the global lighting market, but no one really knows the exact amount for sure,” Bass admitted. Determining what constitutes “controls” can be vague. “Just putting in a simple control can save energy by 30 percent,” he said. “However, with the lighting market increasing by billions of dollars, [intelligent lighting] has become a real opportunity,” Bass noted.

All of the recent activity regarding mergers and acquisitions in the “Internet of Things” (IoT) sector is creating a paradigm shift. In August 2014, Samsung bought SmartThings, which, for those unfamiliar with the brand, promises consumers they can “control and monitor your home from one simple app.” Once a homeowner has the SmartThings Hub and free app, they can add as many devices as they want to “customize their smart home.” Among the devices that the SmartThings Hub controls are: thermostats, open & close window/door sensor, panic button, moisture sensor, wall outlets, smoke detector, smoke/carbon dioxide alarm, water valve shut-off, door lock and deadbolts, fan controller, motion sensor, plus lamps and lighting fixtures.

Simon Coombes, Chief Technology Officer for Gooee® presented a macro view of smart lighting and future technologies during the panel discussion. [Gooee is an M2M (machine to machine) and IoT technology business and systems integrator focused on the design, engineering, and supply of hardware, software, and data management components across the LED lighting value chain.]

“The lighting industry is in a perfect storm of opportunity,” Coombes stated. “LED lighting is forecast to be a $100 billion business by 2020 and we’re seeing an influx of capital into controls. Lighting is the Trojan horse into the [smart] home environment; it is more ubiquitous than any other device. Large multi-stack organizations are getting a marketshare of the control and home automation market and software will be a key element in lighting going forward.”

While the IoT is relevant to smart lighting and appropriate software is critical, Coombes noted that the most important component will be the cooperation among companies to agree on a standard with the goal of creating greater interoperability. “We need mass adoption to realize this opportunity,” he said. “We’re not just talking about lighting, but every appliance you want to control. Lighting is just part of a [larger] system.”

According to a Berg Insight Smart Home report, it is estimated that 36 million homes in Europe and North America will be “smart” by 2017. The greater use of Radio Frequency (RF) will allow for mass adoption of the technology because no rewiring is needed.

“These [technology] mergers and acquisitions will be part of going forward with mass adoption,” Coombes remarked. “Right now, it’s not easy to be compatible with everything.” 

Max Yue of Cree cited a statistic that estimates 25 billion devices will be inter-connected in 2020, with 7 billion of that number being comprised of smart phones. “This means a lot more people will be using data,” he affirmed. “Two years ago, I was [using my devices] to check email. Now you can watch movies [via] live streaming. That’s a lot of data usage! The industry has to prepare for 1,000x growth, and it’s difficult to add the capacity to handle all that data.”

Yue proposed that with LED lighting, we will be able to do much more such as data communication and Li-Fi experimentation. [Li-Fi, a term coined by Prof. Harald Haas during his TED Global talk, is bidirectional, high-speed and fully networked wireless communications similar to like Wi-Fi, but using light.]

With all of these various communication methods being used globally, the panelists agree that we are in the midst of a format war. “There needs to be standardization, perhaps from someone further upstream, to build an infrastructure for lighting companies to [have as a system],” Coombes said. “Until there is standardization, I think it will be frustrating.”

Bass likened the situation to the battle between VHS and Betamax. “Will this be a Betamax problem? Can there only be one winner? There are so many players involved,” he commented.

Panelist Gordon Routledge, Publisher of Lux Review in the UK, surmised, “All consumers want is a system that is easy to use and that works well. Whoever brings out an easy-to-use system will win.”

The solution just might come from outside of the lighting sector. “If the smartphone industry is involved, that might drive the interface [chosen]. The number of smartphones [in use] will keep going up,” Bass noted.

Coombes pointed out, “Above all else, it has to be a practical system to use. If my wife is coming home from shopping with our two kids and she has to pull out her phone to unlock the door, and then go to a lighting app to turn lights on, and then swipe another command, she could have already turned on a light switch in that much time.”

Right now, a satisfactory entry price point for a comprehensive control system is not within the reach of the average consumer yet — but that can change quickly. “Will large controls companies struggle now that these mega-technology companies are investing in [this protocol]? If I were a large controls company today, I’d be worried,” Routledge said.