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Five things that could replace the light switch

LEDs may have the near future sewn up as far as light sources go, but the crystal ball is altogether murkier when it comes to the question of controls. How will they look in the future? While the light switch still has its fans, there are several technologies seeking to usurp the humble wall rocker. James Holloway finds out more.


1. Gestures

The proposition of gesture-controlled lighting is a simple one: why walk up to a switch when you could simply wave at it from where you are? If we can overcome the social conditioning of feeling like a pillock, the technology already exists to do it. One example is Ubiquilux’s e-Motion, which not only lets you wave up and down to turn a light on and off, but also side to side to adjust brightness. Gesture controls have an advantage over switches in places like hospitals, where the transmission of germs is an issue. But how sensitive should gesture control be? If you have to be very close, you may as well have a switch. But if it can detect gestures far and wide, is there a risk of spurious inputs? Fiddly.


2. Voice control

And Steve said, ‘let there be light’, and there was light. Because Steve had installed a Vocca, a new voice-activated light bulb adapter (actually Steve would have to say, ‘go Vocca light’, but that’s by the by). Requiring no smartphone, Wi-Fi or additional equipment, the Vocca simply screws between your light bulb and housing, for the paltry power overhead of an extra 0.25W. The technology works with any light bulb, and has the advantage of genuine simplicity over many of the alternatives. On the downside, people will still need to overcome the awkward factor, along with the fear that someone, somewhere is listening in on their personal conversations, through their lights.


3. Presence detection

In the commercial sector, presence detection – or more accurately motion detection – is as old as the hills. But it has failed to gain a foothold in the home, perhaps because lights have a habit of turning off when you’re sitting still. But in an age when almost everyone carries a mobile device, this needn’t be an issue. Though geofencing is useful to make sure your house lights are all off when you’re out, ultimately we want more granular control. Which is where products like Zuli come in. Zuli is a wireless power adapter that talks to your phone using Bluetooth. This detects your presence inside your home – as you enter a room, say – and can switch lights and other devices on and off accordingly. Movement isn’t a factor so you need never be plunged into darkness halfway through your early-morning meditation session again.


4. Apps

Philips Hue may have the drop on the competition as far as automation options go, but there are already a host of Hue-alikes that also let you take control of your lighting with a downloadable smartphone app. The idea is you can turn your lights on and off, dim them up or down, or adjust their colour from the comfort of your sofa either via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Almost all the major lighting and electronics companies are in on the act, while plucky startup Easybulb (recently on Dragon’s Den) hopes to undercut Hue on price. Quite the extent of the threat this poses to the light switch is up for debate. On the one hand smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and second nature to use. On the other, it’s still a hassle to take one out of your pocket, unlock it, find and launch an app just to to turn a light off.


5. Your smart home hub

Smart homes are smartest when all the systems are able to talk to each other. One simple way to do that is to have a device that’s in charge. Google is positioning its smart thermostat, Nest, as the ideal smart home hub, and the implications for lighting are more nuanced than direct control allows. For instance, combined with the Nest Protect alarm system, your home lights can be made to mimic your presence by turning on and off when you’re away. And smart bulbs like Hue and LIFX can be made to flash a warning in the event of a carbon monoxide leak. In the future, devices like Nest should be able to monitor many if not all the devices in a home to tell not only where people are, but what they’re doing, and adjust the lighting accordingly. But to learn people’s preferences, there’ll still need to be some means of direct control.


So is the light switch dead?

All of the technologies in this list have their place – and some have the potential to become part of our day to day lives. But as they stand now, it seems likely that these will complement the light switch rather than replace it. But for how long? As user interfaces become simpler, automation smarter and our expectations higher, the hurdles that competing technologies face get lower and lower. A switchless house will surely seem a less alien concept in a decade’s time. 

Don’t miss Lux’s Smart Lighting Controls conference in London on 26 February for more on the future of control. The event is free for end users.