In LEDs, some see an intelligence to rival smartphones

December 15, 2015
Enlighted Inc.
Enlighted Inc. is a Silicon Valley company that does LED lighting retrofits, with a little extra. Embedded next to every luminaire, so small you can barely see it, is a quarter-sized disk with a tiny antenna.

Packed inside is a light sensor, a temperature gauge, a power meter and a motion sensor, as well as wireless devices that communicate with the building-management system, with the other lights and with local smartphones.

Together these are tied into a network that is being used for things that have nothing to do with lighting or even energy. AT&T Inc. is applying it to figure out how to reduce its corporate office space. A Missouri hospital is locating its wayward crash carts. LinkedIn and Uber are resizing their conference rooms.

Add to this the fact that two of the biggest names in lighting and networking — Phillips and Cisco Systems Inc. — announced Wednesday they would release a similar set of products, with the tagline “Lighting Beyond Illumination,” and one gets the sense that something big is going on.

“Wherever people are, there are electric lights,” said Michael Poplawski, a specialist in solid-state lighting at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, by means of starting to explain what an LED-based network could do. He added, “People are trying to think of a segment that LED won’t dominate.”

Poplawski said that the LED might do to the lighting industry what the Internet did to the PC, or what the smartphone did to the cellphone: take a standalone object and, by pooling its data on a network, enable it to do things no one ever imagined.

“Nobody sees the whole elephant,” said Zach Gentry, the vice president of marketing at Enlighted, of the emerging market. “We’re a trunk, or a toenail. Nobody knows what’s being created.”

Whatever it is, it represents a remarkable second act for the LED, even as its first act as an excellent and energy-efficient light source has barely begun.

The LED, or light-emitting diode, is the first lighting source to be based on semiconductors, like computers. It now represents barely 3 percent of all bulbs used in the United States. But because LEDs are dramatically energy-saving, capable of emitting a wider range of colors, and far longer-lasting than other light bulbs, they are widely expected to become ubiquitous as they continue a precipitous drop in price.

By 2030, the Department of Energy estimates that LEDs will be the country’s dominant light source, saving as much energy every year as is currently being used by almost 24 million American homes.

A growing roster of new and established technology companies believes that the energy savings will get LEDs into billions of square feet of factories, warehouses and offices. But they bet the accompanying sensors and network will end up being far more valuable.

Or, as Poplawski said, “Energy’s not driving the bus here.”

“At first, people were wondering if LEDs were going to happen, and then if they were going to justify the expense,” said Tom Pincince, the president and CEO of Digital Lumens, a Boston-based networked lighting company that does LED retrofits in warehouses and factories.

“It’s not a bad analogy to see what happened when the music industry became digitized,” he continued. “This is what happens when an industry enters a digitized world.”

It’s about the real estate

One day in November, Tanuj Mohan, a co-founder and the chief technology officer of Enlighted, walked up to a big computer screen on the wall to demonstrate what a light-enabled network could do.

The screen showed the floor plan of an actual high-tech firm near Enlighted’s offices in Sunnyvale, Calif. He picked out a recent date and started running the clock from midnight at fast-forward speed.

At first all was quiet. Around 5 a.m., a few blobs — the office workers — zipped through the hallways and parked themselves at desks. By 9:30 a.m., the blobs were at cubicles everywhere, and the conference rooms pulsed with activity. Around 6 p.m., most of the blobs drained out the doors. All the while, one conference room and one set of desks remained almost blob-free.

The tracking systems work by means of the sensor modules, installed every 100 square feet with each overhead light, Gentry explained. They are attentive to workflow in unexpected ways.

One sensor, detecting infrared heat, samples 60 times a second, which helps it distinguish between a person quietly sitting at his desk and, say, a space heater. Meanwhile, the light sensors watch for subtle changes in illumination as light reflects off a passing secretary. Computer servers, hosted in the cloud, stitch the data streams into an image.

The system can mesh its data with that from the building management system, the conference-room scheduling system, ambient daylight and the weather to manage light levels. It also can pair room occupancy with HVAC data, so the building knows which rooms to heat and cool when.

Because LEDs use so much less energy than overhead fluorescent tubes, an upgrade like this can drop the electric bill by 90 percent, Gentry said.

Enlighted adopts the same sort of approach to selling lights as SolarCity does with rooftop solar panels: It offers them as a service, rather than selling the lights themselves. Any savings that come from a lower energy bill go to Enlighted, and that’s how it makes its money.

The other services, however, cost extra.

The strongest extra right now is facility planning, a generic term that belies its importance. Silicon Valley companies that are growing fast, such as Uber, Google and Hewlett-Packard, employ the data to determine when their offices are getting too crowded and that they need more space, Gentry said. Others looking to downsize, like AT&T, can figure out what zones aren’t being used.

A particular area of interest is the conference room, where Enlighted can use its blob headcounting to determine if it is occupied by one or two people, or two to four, or more. Open floor plans are common in the tech world. Since conference rooms are the only place for private conversations, sizing them for best use has value, Gentry said.

Commanding a view of roaming blobs is also useful for a warehouse manager, said Pincince. “Where are your people?” he asked. “How fast are they moving? Where are they colliding? Do I have enough space? Do I have too little space? Are people entering a space they shouldn’t?”

The blobs are, for now, anonymous. But those interviewed for this story think it’s only a matter of time before systems like these can pinpoint specific people by better sensing combined with other data points, like the phones in workers’ pockets and the entry badges on their jackets.

“If we had sensors everywhere, if we had everything metered, if we had every employee tracked, we’d be able to do amazing things. That’s very hard to do,” said Pincince of his customers’ desires. “The beautiful thing about a smart lighting system is if you put a sensor array in your building … you get through a lot of those ifs.”

Does an employer commanding a bird’s-eye view of worker movements raise concerns for employees’ rights? Several workplace-privacy experts said that workers shouldn’t expect anonymity in the office. Yet some added that bosses would do well to let employees know what they’re up to.

“The interplay between corporate needs and employees’ privacy rights in this area is something that should cause companies to carefully consider whether they want to engage in such an invasive practice,” said William Heyman, a business attorney in Baltimore.

Another growth area for Enlighted is what it calls “locationing”: placing tiny, coin-sized beacons on valuable pieces of equipment in order to know where they are.

The marquee customer is Mercy Hospital St. Louis, a four-state hospital chain in the Midwest, which is attaching the beacons to its crash carts and other expensive pieces of wheeled equipment, which could be parked anywhere, and are sometimes hoarded by nurses.

Recently, someone broke into Enlighted’s offices and made off with a few laptops, Mohan said. The company didn’t need to search the office to see where else that person might have gone, because they reviewed that night’s data and saw exactly the burglar’s path.

“Imagine if we gave that to as an API,” Monah said with a grin. (An API, or application program interface, is how app makers build services on top of a computer platform.)

A widening spectrum

Another intriguing use of networked lights is that it enables workers to customize the lighting in their workspaces, even if they are nomads.

At Google, where employees frequently float from desk to desk, a worker can take a smartphone picture of the bar code next to an Enlighted light, enter that photo into an app, and then brighten or dim the light with a dial on the smartphone screen, Gentry said.

The next frontier in networked lighting — and with LEDs in general — is to be able to tune the spectrum of the light, not just its intensity. This could enable lights to change component colors through the hours to more closely mimic the rhythms of daylight, or to tailor the light to the task, or the personality.

“There’s people who like [light] to be warm, there’s people who like it to be cooler when they’re doing more focused work,” explained Brent Protzman, the manager of energy information and analytics at Lutron Electronics Inc., a Pennsylvania lighting-controls company that is also entering the market.

Another player that appears to be making a large play in the space is General Electric Co.

In October, GE announced it had snatched John Gordon, the man who built IBM’s artificial-intelligence service called Watson, to oversee GE’s new Internet-of-things division, which is called Current. His first order of business is to build an intelligent-lighting offering.

“It’s the equivalent of the cell phone in the industrial world, as we look into the future,” he said in an interview on GE’s blog.

This expands on smart LED products that GE is already building into outdoor systems. Earlier this year, the company announced an initiative to couple its LED streetlights with ShotSpotter, a product that uses microphones to triangulate the source of gunshots. Georgia Power intends to install them in high-crime areas.

This new industry hasn’t settled on a name for what it does. It is variously called intelligent lighting, or networked lighting, or advanced controls. The biggest impediment that slows its spread right now is one that plagues any new technology platform: standards.

Almost half a dozen competing standards groups have emerged, with names like Open Interconnect Consortium and Allseen Alliance. Until the industry agrees on common protocols, devices from one provider won’t necessarily speak with those from another.

But the LED light, born as a crusader for green energy, is unmistakably veering into unpredictable territory. A report by Lux Research estimated the size of the market for advanced sensors and controls in commercial buildings, of which lighting is a part, to be worth $1.3 billion by 2020 in the United States and Europe, and that’s just for new buildings. The market for retrofits is much larger.

“The market we see,” said Mohan, “is almost endless.”

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