Smart Light Bulbs: What Are They?

Almost everything and anything invented after 2012 is starting to bear the “smart” label due to its ability to extend beyond its original intended functionality and provide a broad range of features that have previously been thought of as outside of its scope. Think of it: The smartphone does much more than allow you to dial numbers and complete calls. Smart homes are more than simple abodes where you sleep after a long day of work or watching Netflix. And on June 9, 2015, the BBC reported that there is such a thing as a “smart” light bulb. The question now is, “Are these light bulbs going to serve a proper purpose that a vast majority of people can benefit from?”

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The “smart” light bulb discussed in the BBC article suggests that it operates on a form of “Li-Fi”, or subtle changes in light that are machine-readable. In theory you can hold up your mobile device’s camera to it and, with an app, translate the series of micro-flickers in the light into human-readable information. This information can be anything from a map locating a product you want to find to a description of the artwork in front of you. Basically the lights will give the rendering information to your phone or tablet, and then the device you hold in your hand will draw up a diagram with the information you requested. Its applications are very far-reaching (think about the postal service, which could end up locating your package more easily and forwarding it to the right destination, guided by nothing but light flickers). But is it workable?

While Li-Fi is a very hyped technology, this application of light modulation has given me a couple of concerns, not the least of which is the reliability of the technology on common consumer-level mobile hardware. You see, the entire technology depends on your camera. Well, what if the camera has a smudge on the lens that makes it difficult to detect the extremely subtle changes in light that it’s expected to interpret? What if the camera isn’t capable at all of this? Most consumer-level camera lenses on mobile devices can’t detect a slight modulation in light or even a change of anything below forty to fifty lumens. This means that this particular application is doomed to fail unless either the light flickers in a fashion that disturbs the human eye, or mobile devices become more sensitive to these subtle changes.

Even if every device on the planet suddenly started being more sensitive tomorrow, we’d still have to account for the frame-capturing speed of the camera. If a camera captures sixty frames per second (which some higher-end models do), that means that light bulbs will be restricted to a speed of 7.5 bytes per second (60 divided by 8). At that transmission rate, you can expect to download a 24 kilobyte image in roughly 53 minutes. It will take you quite literally almost an hour to pick up a single small image detailing a map with your item’s location which is much worse than simply asking a human being for the same thing. For this technology to work, mobile devices will need to be equipped with very sensitive and extremely fluid light detection hardware.

Are we ready for “smart” light bulbs? Perhaps we would be if multiple light bulbs would send the data at the same time, allowing for much larger data rates. For now, it seems like the technology is not feasible with the average consumer’s hardware. Time will tell if we may be able to make heads or tails of the situation.

What’s your take? Tell us in a comment!