By Michael Kanellos
It consumes very little power. The chips and software behind it are cheap and getting cheaper, and the name incorporates an absolutely insane combination of capital letters and numbers.
What is there not to like about the 6LowPAN standard?
The Android bulb -- a networked LED bulb coming out later this year from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Lighting Science (OTCQB:LSCG) -- will connect to Android phones and other devices through the above-mentioned standard, according to Ted Russ, chief business development officer for the company.
NXP Semiconductor, other sources have said, will supply the chips for the bulbs. It figures. NXP -- which was spun out of the Philips conglomerate a few years ago -- supplies low-powered NFC (near field communications) chips to Android phone makers already and is a leading expert in energy-efficient, light-bandwidth communications. NXP also announced a component family, called GreenChip, for LED bulbs based around the standard back in May, a few days after Google and Lighting Science announced the Android bulb. JenNet-IP, an open-source software stack, complements GreenChip. TCP, a light manufacturer, already supports GreenChip.
Early GreenChip controllers range in price from $1.70 to $3.60, according to NXP releases, but the actual prices for customers buying in volume will be far lower.
The Android bulb is one of the biggest announcements so far this year in lighting. The idea behind the networked bulb is to allow users to be able to turn off and/or program their lights to save power without having to think about it too much. When you walk into the room, your phone can sense your presence and turn on the lights. The life force has arrived! When you leave, it can dim the lights automatically. Plus, integrating networking into the bulb itself dramatically reduces the headaches and hardware required for home automation. Consumers won't have to insert power line networking into their existing wires or put power-over-ethernet cables into the walls. If they have an Android phone, all they will have to do, presumably, is screw in a light bulb and click a few menu boxes on their phone.
Exploiting silicon to cut down on wiring and retrofits, in fact, is one the drivers of NXP's overall strategy, which will also make chips for networking household appliances and wireless light switches.
“[Wireless] will save you a lot of copper,” Rene Penning de Vries, the chief technology officer at NXP, told us last year. “Copper is pretty expensive.”
There's no reason the same basic bulb technology couldn't be used in commercial office buildings, too. As a result, Google may compete soon against Adura, Lumenergi, Redwood Systems, Daintree Networks and the other firms in this market. So far, most of the lighting networking companies focus on commercial office buildings and data centers, while most of the home networking companies have focused on heaters and air conditioners, not lights. Google and Lighting Science, as a result, could fill a gap in the commercial market, too. The bulb also brings Google back into home energy management: it killed its PowerMeter project back in June.
Google and Lighting Science did not announce the protocol when the Android bulb was announced. Initially, we heard it would use Wi-Fi. Google later clarified at its developer conference that it wasn't saying.
One could imagine Philips producing similar bulbs. Philips competes directly against Lighting Science in LEDs and a number of executives have spent time at both Philips proper and NXP. (Editor's note: Although Philips is a much larger company with a longer history in lighting, we've preferred the bulbs from Lighting Science in our tests. Lighting Science bulbs also often cost less. We will have a review of their latest bulb soon.)
The 6LowPAN standard -- an amalgamation of IvP6 and Low Power Wireless Personal Area Network -- is also compatible with Wi-Fi and other wireless standards. One could thus imagine Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) or AT&T (NYSE:T) offering comprehensive home management services through the DSL and cable boxes already in your home.
If the LowPAN standard takes off with lights, it certainly could limit the household footprint of ZigBee, as noted in our earlier stories. Some companies are also touting low-powered Wi-Fi for residential and commercial building management. (There's a whole lot of low-powered wireless information from our pals at EE Times here.) NXP, however, won't likely get too religious about protocols. It is one of the largest manufacturers of ZigBee and LowPAN chips and played an instrumental role in establishing both standards.