Like Light(n)ing

I’m a simple woman, I like simple things. Like lightbulbs. One of my favorite things about my smartpartment is the lighting. To me, nothing about the future being now is more exciting than the fact that I can command my lights with my voice.

There are a few great options for smart lighting on the market that you may have heard of already. Philips’s Hue is probably the most mainstream, but there are many others as well. Lutron, Lightwave, and Insteon are switches that you connect to your existing wiring. WeMo, Osram, Cree, and Stack are LED bulbs on the white-light spectrum and are shaped like traditional lightbulbs. Emberlight is a smart-socket that will work with traditional lightbulbs. My personal favorite, Lifx, are bulbs that come in white-spectrum or full-color-spectrum and are available in two different sizes.

While I do have a Samsung Smart-Hub and an Osram lightbulb‑which are cost-effective and connect through both Samsung and WeMo hubs, the internet at my apartment is already a little strained and I haven’t permanently set up that type of functionality.  Eventually, if I want to smart-light my entire apartment, Osram and a hub partnership will be the way I go (unless I win the lottery and Hue-light my whole life). Currently, I have two Lifx Color 1000 bulbs and one Lifx White 1000 bulb.

Why one white, if the colored bulbs also produce a full spectrum of white light? Well, I’d love to say I bought them specifically for the current, brilliant configuration that I have, but I didn’t. Initially, I bought one white bulb and one color bulb, because I thought that having two colored lights would be overwhelming in the small space of my room. I was quickly underwhelmed by the effect of a single colored light and bought another colored bulb (which subsequently led to a literal war with the post office in which I had to call them and convince them that they were supposed to deliver mail on Saturdays to all of Brooklyn and not just some of it). But now I have all my light bulbs, and I’m giddy like a child about it.

The Lifx app comes complete with a number of themes and scenes which you can apply to your lights to create a certain mood. My favorite is called “Dream,” which casts dim, pastel blues and purples, perfect for the end of the day. I alternate this with another great Lifx scene called “Energizing.” When I leave “Dream” on for too long and get lazy, flipping the switch in my head to wake up is as easy as tapping the widget on the Home screen of my phone.

But not all the themes are that utilitarian. You can always set it to the “Halloween” theme, and have low, orange light flood the apartment. And then, you can turn on the “Spooky” setting and have the lights flicker at random intervals and black-out entirely at a specific time. There is also a music visualizer function, which utilizes your phone’s microphone to pick up the music in the room and change the lights accordingly, a firelight flicker setting, color randomizers and cycles, and a strobe light.

So, sure, I spend an inordinate amount of time just swirling the color wheel and looking at my room in different shades of green for literally no reason, but there are also practical advantages. When I have a bad headache after work, and come home to the bright white LED light in the kitchen that makes my head throb, I can go into my room and tell Alexa to “trigger headache lights.” Through the magic of a service called If This Then That (IFTTT), the lights will dim to 15% brightness and slowly change to one cobalt bulb and one “blue overcast” from the white-spectrum bulb. It’s enough light to read by without hurting my head and the blue tones don’t strain your eyes in the way that yellow and white lights do. Or, if I want to know what my hair, outfit, and makeup will look like in the natural light outside, the weird light of my office, or the dim light of a concert hall, I can just replicate those conditions in my own room before I go out!

That’s where my awesome (totally planned and not-due-to-my-own-silliness) white bulb setup comes in. Through the usage of a flexible desk lamp, bathroom outlet, and mirror, I’ve made it so my bathroom vanity, where I do my makeup, is a place where I can control the shade and intensity of the light completely. I’ve caught weird, uneven makeup mistakes in white light that I wouldn’t have caught in normal lighting or even natural lighting. And, as I mentioned before, I can match the light of my office, or a party, or the outdoors.

The bathroom light also comes in handy because it gives my room a third light source. Typically, for a room to look fully lit, light needs to come from three different directions‑often two table lamps and an overhead light. But for my tiny, crammed-full-of-stuff bedroom, my light sources are the overhead lights, the light that comes in from the window, and the bathroom. Being able to make it instantly brighter without getting up and opening the curtains, or relying on the ceiling light in the bathroom has been really convenient for writing, reading, and sewing. It’s also helpful if I’ve left my room a mess and want to creep to the bathroom in the middle of the night without disturbing my boyfriend by turning on a light (or tripping on something). I can silently tap my phone and, across the room, my vanity light switches on and gives me just enough light to travel by. And if you’re the type of person who takes selfies, you’ll love controlling the color of the lighting in your environment, both for normal beautification reasons, and for fun, “look I’m blue” reasons.

Smart lighting does come with some downsides, however. If I’m relaxed in bed, tell Alexa to turn off the bedroom lights, and one of the two bulbs has come disconnected from wifi, I’ll have to get up and actually use the “lightswitch” (whatever that is) to turn it off and on again until they both connect, at which point I’m usually so frustrated that I’ll use the app to switch them off and stomp back to bed. Sometimes, if I sleep somewhere else, I’ll come home to find my lights‑which fade on to a brilliant red and golden light with the sunrise every morning‑are on because I forgot to turn them off, despite being able to do so from anywhere that there is internet access. That is a frustrating habit that I’m trying to improve on, but I can take solace in the fact that, as LED bulbs, at least they use much less energy than incandescent lightbulbs would.

Lifx integrates directly with the Amazon Echo, but they didn’t when I bought them. Initially, I had to integrate them through IFTTT and instruct Alexa to their usage with “triggers.” Now, however, I only use triggers with Lifx for complicated scenes, like my headache lights, or for silly things, like flashing blue and white in my room when the Yankees score a run, or flickering red and orange when Donald Trump wins a primary election. Alexa’s direct integration with Lifx allows me to create “groups” with custom names for voice control. This is particularly exciting for me because I can say with total confidence, “Alexa, turn Everything off” and all 3 lights, my fan, and my charging station will turn off completely. I can also identify separate rooms and turn off the bedroom lights separately from the bathroom lights with spoken commands.

However, Alexa isn’t the only AI assistant and smart-hub that can command your Lifx network. Lifx currently integrates with Nest, IFTTT, Samsung’s Smartthings, Logitech’s Harmony, and “Ok Google,” which is another promising voice-activated AI that you can install on your mobile device and connect through your Gmail account. I am not sure if Siri or Cortana plan to have any contact with Lifx, but since both Siri and Cortana have the ability to create calendar events and to-do-list items, IFTTT can connect your lights to those AI characters also, just with less effectiveness.

Whether you want to play around, like me, are a photographer or blogger, live with chronic headaches, have trouble getting up in the morning and falling asleep at night, or just want to run a haunted house, wifi-controlled lights are a cool way to upgrade your home. Though some options, like Lifx, can be expensive ($59.99/bulb), others like the WeMo lighting starter kit ($50 for a hub and 2 bulbs or $15/bulb) are truly affordable and long-lasting, thanks to the 20-year lifespan of an LED lightbulb.

I personally think that smart lighting is really exciting and, as these options become more and more cost-effective, there are fewer reasons to continue buying disposable, less-energy-efficient incandescent bulbs‑which is good news for the environment, too!