Stack’s Smart Sensor-Packed Light Bulbs Run Autonomously, No App Interactions Required

Over the past few years a swath of self-styled ‘smart lights’ have pushed into the market. The likes of Philips Hue and Kickstarter fueled LIFX. Aka connected lightbulbs that can be controlled via an app. But this is just the first wave of smart lighting — and it’s really not-so-smart, argues new lighting focused startup Stack, launching today on stage here at TechCrunch Disrupt SF.

Stack’s view is that truly smart connected objects should be autonomous, rather than require their owner to continuously tend to their needs via an app. Because, well, as I for one have noted before, needing to use an app for every bulb in your home is just tedious. So Stack’s ‘lightbulb moment’, if you will, is to create smart lights with built-in ambient light, motion and occupancy sensors — enabling them to respond dynamically to their environment without the need for constant app-based interaction.

The bulbs are packed with sensors, Bluetooth, Zigbee and iBeacon hardware, and microcontrollers allowing them to react autonomously once installed. During the initial set up process the owner is asked to specify (yes, via an app) whether the bulbs are installed in a commercial location or a home. And once they choose one of those two options they’re good to go, with the system using a series of commercial or residential pre-sets to dial light up or down, based on ambient light conditions, time of day and occupancy of the room.

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“If you say ‘home’ it automatically defaults all the bulbs with a pre-set,” explains Stack CEO Neil Joseph, who left his day job at Tesla to set up the company. (Another co-founder used to work in electrical engineering at NASA and is now helping Stack nail down its light sensing algorithms.) “In the morning it’ll be a cooler, blue light, and then as the day goes on the lights will automatically adjust their color temperature. All the way to a warmer color by the evening,” he adds.

Initially the residential market will be the startup’s target, although Stack has big plans for business use — hence the iBeacon integration and a planned analytics offering so commercial users will be able to use the bulbs to determine things like footfall within a store.

Using connected light bulbs as iBeacons offers a high-resolution way to surveil a space, argues Joseph. “It’s the same functionality as any other iBeacon except it’s a higher resolution… There are more bulbs in any space than any other electronic device because of how numerous they are.”

“The two biggest applications we see is in the retail sector to measure foot traffic and motion throughout a store. As well as with the iBeacon part of it being able to have that interactivity with their customers. The big thing here is because they already have the lights they don’t have to get a whole separate system installed to have iBeacons deployed,” he adds.

On the residential side, a key area of focus for Stack’s marketing will be on how its product can help improve users’ sleep patterns. That’s because Stack bulbs are color temperature sensitive to the time of day, meaning the shade and intensity of the light will be in tune with outdoor light levels and therefore with the human circadian rhythm.

Hence Stack’s bulbs using a bluer color temperature in the mornings, and becoming warmer, softer and dimmer in the evenings — in an effort to make the indoor environment mimic the natural outdoor light cycle of sunrise, daylight, dusk and darkness. Despite this shifting color temperature, all Stack’s light shades are white. No lurid lighting colors here.

“What’s been interesting through this discovery process is learning how light really impacts people’s health. There’s been a lot of technology… that tries to measure how you sleep. There are all the wearable devices that try to measure that. And the thing is… what do you do about that once you know that you aren’t sleeping well? For your circadian rhythm, one of the biggest influencers on that is light,” notes Joseph.

“If you’re able to tune the lights — so let’s say, saying what time you’d ideally like to go to bed and wake up, and have the right tone of light and amount, it will definitely help readjust your body and really maximize your energy focus and overall health. So that’s one of the big things that we’re doing that will be in our app. That’s actually the biggest thing that we see people utilizing our app for; is just simply saying I want to try to go to bed by 11.30pm and I want to wake up at 7am. So as you get closer to the evening the lights automatically start dimming down and they’re a warmer hue and your body will naturally respond to that, and start to relax.”

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The potential for energy savings using Stack is another key area of focus. Joseph tells TechCrunch the bulbs yield energy savings of between 60 and 80 per cent compared to LED bulbs across residential and commercial deployments. This is owing to their ambient light-sensing smart dimming, so there’s never any redundant light energy being expended. Rather they shine as brightly as conditions require. Also helping conserve energy is their ability to switch off entirely when rooms are unoccupied, so again bulbs aren’t left burning unnecessarily.

It’s worth noting that some commercial environments already have sensor-powered lighting control systems installed that respond to — for instance — room occupancy, to switch lights off at night when the last employees have clocked off and gone home. But Joseph says Stack offer a much cheaper and easier way to install a dynamic lighting system than one of these high cost lighting control systems. No lighting engineers or additional IT installations are required to run Stack.

Per bulb Stack costs $60, although you also need a Zigbee hub. A hub plus a two-bulb pack will cost $150 — with each bulb offering a lifespan of around 50,000 hours. Joseph says that cost stacks up well against the upwards of $100,000 a business might need to shell out to install a full sensor-based lighting control system. And of course Stack allows for bulbs to be installed gradually, as budget allows.

Today the first Stack bulb is up for pre-order — with an estimated delivery date of Q1 next year. The first bulb format is a recessed can light. It’s calling this bulb Alba. Additional bulbs formats will follow in the first and second half of 2015, according to Joseph. The startup is also intending to make a connected fixture for the smallest MR16 bulbs, which might have trouble fitting all its sensor tech inside the bulb itself. “Over the course of the next year we’re going to have all of the major formats of lights and fixtures,” he adds.

Stack’s bulbs will support integration with Google’s Nest and Apple’s HomeKit (IFTTT support is planned too). There will also be a Stack API to extend usage via third party apps, should users want more functionality.

The Stack app itself does also support more granular control if the user is so inclined — allowing the setting up of different zones within a house, for instance, although the core philosophy here is to avoid the necessity for too much micro control. Bulbs can be drags and dropped into zones within the app. Zones can also be provisioned by location — so a user could, for instance, stand in their bedroom and tell the app to zone all the nearby bulbs as the ‘master bedroom’.

Beyond the individual connected bulbs, launching today, the grand vision is for Stack to form the backbone (or indeed the stack) for many more connected indoor devices.

“The way we see it is because we have these sensors in the bulb — and if you think about it, generally lights are the most common electronic devices in a building, whether it’s residential or commercial, we view it as we become the backbone of a responsive sensor network throughout the house,” adds Joseph. “With HomeKit and Works With Nest, with those APIs and some APIs of our own, we’re going to be able to help tie together all of those other products.”

Judges Q&A

Q: Maybe you could walk through the experience of how I use the product…
A: Imagine just setting the time of when you want to wake up and go to bed. It comes on with a bluer hue of light in the mornig… then by the evening a warmer or yellow hue of light helps you to go to bed

Q: What is the major advance here?
A: The major advance that we’ve done is the embedded sensors and being able to tie all that together

Q: I need to be able to control it
A: It can learn, it turns itself on if there’s a commotion

Q: So I can just buy this on Amazon today and screw this into my current light fixture and it’ll work
A: You can pre-order today and we’ll begin shipping in Q1

Q: The context of how I want my life set up is very contextual… how does it know that context and how does it work in an existing environment where I have dimmers and switches?
A: Our bulbs will be able to work with all the common dimmers… We have pre-loaded pre-sets. And common pre-sets – like a dinner party mode that’s softer… In the app you can drag and drop. You can adjust [individual bulbs] in the app if you want

Q: Is commercial or residential the bigger opportunity here?
A: We’re going after residential first because we need more formats of lights

Q: Marketing question. It’s always a challenge to tell people what a reinvented thing is. What’s your elevator pitch?
A: Alba is the world’s first responsive lightbulb. You don’t have to touch an app, it will automatically respond to the environment

Q: My life is never linear, I want to override the pre-sets what do I do?
A: That’s why we have the app. You go down to the individual bulbs and adjust them

Q: How many of the hubs do you need for a normal house?
A: You only need one per house. We use Zigbee… it’s a mesh network. One unit can go all the way

Q: What is the price point compared with Philips Hue or some of these other smart lights?
A: We’re pricing it at $60 just like the Philips Hue. Same price but much more functionality

Q: What’s the life like?
A: Generally the newer LEDs will be 50,000 hours… So a home setting you’re talking 30+ years. In a commercial setting on for 12 hours a day over 11 years

Q: The challenge of getting LEDs to work correctly with dimmers seems to be an unresolved issue. How do you play nice?
A: There are many types of dimmers and a common core set that everyone tries to work with but ultimately there we say get rid of the switch long term. That’s our dream for a truly responsive home

Q: Tell me about the founders – what led to this idea?
A: This started when I was at Tesla… I was sitting in the office building and I thought why are these lights on at full power? Why can’t they dim like our phones or TVs — so I set about creating the technology and building an awesome team.