Smart home lighting is a first step for many when buying their first smart home products. You can change the entire atmosphere of your home with a voice command, and it’s an exciting and fun upgrade. I sat down with one of the leaders in this space, Aaron Ganick, Global Head of Smart Business, from LEDVANCE which owns the Sylvania Smart+ lightbulbs in North America.
We chatted about the smart home market, but he also walked me through his personal smart home setup. It’s an impressive custom system that shows what is possible in smart home beyond the simple plug and play systems most of us have.
Disclose: Aaron spent a lot of time walking me through his custom system and how others like us can create better smart homes. He’s a very knowledgeable person in this area and was generous enough to open his house for us all to see.
Stu: Tell me a little about LEDVANCE and Sylvania, and specifically, about what you do there.
Aaron: I’m responsible globally for the smart home business, both for retail consumer products and commercial offerings. I have a background in electrical engineering and wireless connectivity, mobile applications and cloud-based systems. I joined Osram Sylvania which then carved out the general lighting group that is now LEDVANCE, and have been responsible for all sorts of start-ups within the company – most recently taking on the smart home and business segment globally for our company.
In this role I’m responsible for the business strategy, sales and marketing, and product portfolio development. I think we operate a little differently than many of the other companies in the industry, and we are proud of this. We have evolved as the market has shifted.
Consumers may or may not notice if they are new to the smart home space, but we have a long standing ZigBee portfolio that works with your favorite ZigBee enabled smart home hub of choice. And since then we’ve been developing additional Bluetooth and Bluetooth mesh based products to address a clear market need for simple solutions that do not need a hub. We’re very focused on reducing the friction and barriers that make many consumers hesitant to enter the category.
S: What does the future hold at Sylvania?
A: Lighting as a category has different requirements than many other smart products in your home like thermostats, door locks, or cameras. Lighting, you typically have a lot of devices. There are on average 50+ light sockets in the US home. And so regardless of the technology, you want to have seamless group control, fast response times, and typical lighting experiences as you would normally expect from regular light bulbs. If you go over and flip on a light switch, you expect all the lights to turn on at the same time. If they turn on one by one, you’re going to think that something is wrong.
Now I do have to mention that there’s a lot of talk on Wi-Fi which is well known and is commonly associated with products that are smart. We are commonly asked, “Why don’t you just put Wi-Fi in all of your bulbs?” Well for starters, if you believe that the number of connected devices in our home is going to increase over time, then you will likely have a situation where these smart products are competing for space on your network which has a fixed capacity, making your home a very crowded and competitive environment for basic internet related activities. Put it this way, would you mind if Netflix skips and pauses when someone turns on the lights?
I could give you a laundry list of the pros and cons, but today you really can’t go wrong with a quality Zigbee bulb and hub, or a simple Bluetooth mesh based solution that only needs a mobile device to control it. Depending on your needs, requirements, and comfort level with installation, there is a perfect solution waiting for you.
S: What excites you about smart home personally?
A: I’m a pretty big geek. I’m an electrical engineer by training and love to tinker with automation in my free time since they never let me touch the production code at work! Just kidding, well… kind of. I think ultimately, I like having products that autonomously make my life easier at home so I just don’t have to worry about remembering to do everything every day.
Simple things like a wireless Rachio sprinkler system that auto adjusts for seasonality, but also gives me the option to adjust its’ watering schedules no matter where I am in the world. This makes it so that then when I’m at home I can spend more time with my family and be more productive for other important topics. Plus, the grass magically stays green! Now there are some really cool robot lawn mowers out there that should definitely be the next step.
Honestly the constant improvements within the smart home market make it the most enjoyable for me. It seems like every few months I am able to experiment with new features and products that continuously make the overall experience more seamless and useful. Safe to say that nothing stays stable in our household, but luckily I have a very loving and patient wife! Ironically the products that get the most praise and attention, are the ones that I never have to touch because they’re just off and away doing their own thing. Some examples like routines that automate lighting on and off with sunrise and sunset, and brightness based on time of day. Watering if it’s raining or not and dependent on for soil conditions. Security alerts to my phone if someone left the garage door open for too long. Or simply asking Google or Amazon to “play some rock music in the kitchen” when I want to jam while cooking. These are some of the many comforts and securities that I really appreciate when having a smart home, and ones that my family didn’t realize that they could live without!
S: Walk me through how you use your smart home. Walk me through your day.
The smartest products are the one you don’t have to worry about. Each day is different depending on what activities we are undertaking, so I try not to over-schedule many of the routines, but keep them close by with a simple voice command or motion based trigger.
For example, in the morning when waking up, I have a multi-phase approach where the lighting comes on with a sunrise routine that progressively gets brighter and cooler. Of course using our Sylvania Smart+ lighting! Sonos then kicks in and adds some music and it gets brighter and louder until we yell at Alexa to tell her that we’re awake and then it will level things out, turn lights on in the bathroom, etc. and kind of get us ready for the day.
From there on out we mostly use a variety of voice commands throughout the day to start and stop music, check our schedules, weather, set timers, check in on the cameras, or of course turning off all lights at once with a simple voice command at night. Surprisingly we really aren’t using many smart home apps to control the products, unless settings need to be adjusted or we are checking in on things when we are away from the house.
Adjusting the color temp affects your mood.
You have a lot of this tied in through SmartThings or Yonomi. How do you decide what to use with which hub or app?
It’s really based on what works well together, and what you want to accomplish. I have a couple anchor systems that came with the house or that I specifically wanted to install, that then dictate if the devices that I want them to influence can be controlled directly or not. For those that can’t be controlled directly, I typically use a third party service like Yonomi that does a fantastic job of tying different experiences together in the cloud.
For example, Lightify has a great wakeup routine so I use our Sylvania Zigbee bulbs on a Lightify hub doing their sunrise thing, but then they are also connected to Amazon Echo which is then connected to many other systems in the house, sometimes using Yonomi. I decide to use each system based on the routine that I want to achieve, and then if it can be connected to something else.
I know it sounds insanely complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t so bad. Most all of these services have pretty good setup instructions, and there are about a billion online forums and resources with step by step guides from people who have been in your shoes.
Taking a step back and looking at it from the consumer point of view, we as an industry can do better here. People like us (techies) get it and realize the pros and cons when deciding how to architect their smart home, making it relatively straight forward to decide which products to use. Or we stubbornly keep hacking away until it works exactly how we want it to! But your average consumer isn’t going to do that, and if they can’t get it working in the first 30 minutes, our statistics show that they are likely to return it and could be turned off by the brand and category.
Where do you see the future of smart home?
It definitely has to be simplified. We need to keep the smart home simple and easy to use in order to encourage adoption. “Simply Smart” is a term that we sue to describe this at LEDVANCE. Actually, there are some videos from early home builders from like 1983 using serial cables to connect the stove to the door locks to the alarms to everything. The ‘Smart Home of the Future, Today!’, in the 80’s.
It’s true! Be in awe of the 1980’s vision fro smart home!
So clearly technology isn’t the issue since it’s been around for a few decades. It’s finding that tipping point where it makes sense for the early majority, and not just the early adopters. It has to be simple, provide value, and benefit their daily lives.
I also think that the future of smart home will be more closely tied into performing everyday tasks that seem pretty boring. Many times I am asked for recommendations on what “smart” products someone should buy. My typical response is always first with a few questions like, “What are you trying to accomplish? Protecting against or being alerted about a leak in your basement? Do you want to control your heat/air when you’re not home? Do you want to have a way to check in on your house when you are not home? Do you like music?”
From there you can decide what products or ecosystems will best solve the problem while making sure that you aren’t locked into a single solution that doesn’t play well with others. Definitely I think the future of smart home will be more open, collaborative, and competitive.
You have a lot of sensors in your house. How many do you have and what brands do you use?
Probably around 30-40 sensors overall, some Honeywell, SYLVANIA, and Samsung. When we bought our house it was wired with a Honeywell system, so a lot of them are Honeywell 5800 series proprietary sensors. Since this is an older version system, it is probably the most standalone ecosystem that I have installed. It does have a Z-Wave adapter in it to give control over the garage door and some exterior lighting. Full disclosure in the past years they have come out with a lot of great new products that integrate with many other systems. I just am happy with how it all works together today and probably won’t change it anytime soon.
Typical routines are if an external door or window sensor opens when the system is armed, I get an alarm from Honeywell and the police are called. Or if other motion sensors are triggered the lights will change brightness based on the time of day. Even though I live in a safe community and really don’t need any of it, it gives peace of mind when traveling and of course always something to tinker with.
Now probably the least efficient use of my time and resources, is the use of high definition cameras for time lapses watching grass grow and the seasons changing. Really that’s about their only purpose.
Why do you Axis security cameras?
Back in my engineering days I installed Axis cameras to do ecological monitoring of wildlife and beach erosion in off-grid areas. It was pretty cool stuff. I always thought that when I buy a house someday, these cameras are incredible and I’m going to put some in.
The cameras are fed by power over Ethernet, you can do all sorts of object recognition and it’s 100% locally stored which is important for me personally. Now this is just me, but I’m not a big fan of my camera feeds being tored to the cloud. This is why I use a QNAP server to store all of my files and camera footage locally. It has 11TB of video storage and I can access it remotely. Do I really need this advanced of a setup? Absolutely not. But computer networking is a hobby and passion of mine!
QNAP Server Controlling Axis Cameras
One cool new thing I recently discovered is a way to display the camera feeds on an Alexa device using your voice. This makes it much easier to view what is going one for someone who doesn’t want to pull up a web browser or use an app.
I bought an Echo Show and stumbled upon a skill called Monocle that lets you integrate any RTSP camera feed into a form that Alexa can understand and display on the display screen. And it all happens locally. Monocle is in the cloud, but the information is only consumed locally. So I can say, “Alexa, show me the front yard.” and it will pop up on the Echo Show. Or where I have Fire TVs, I can talk to the remote, and say, “Alexa, Show me the whatever.” and it will pop right up on the TV. This was a little complicated to setup, but there are many DIY cameras that have much simpler integrations with Alexa that are far more approachable for the everyday consumer.
What sort of objects can it recognize?
It can detect the difference between people, animals, and cars. It can filter based on size and speed of movement. While there is capability for advanced facial recognition, as of now I’m not running a bitcoin operation, or need such advanced security measures.
Overall the software is pretty advanced and used heavily in the commercial space, however we are already seeing these types of capabilities being built into the feature sets of popular DIY cameras like the Nest Cam. There are lots of great camera solutions out there today in the marketplace from name brands, and are totally DIY. I would expect to see more of these features and capabilities become very approachable for everyday consumers in the future.
Do you have alerts that are based on object recognition?
I used to get a lot of nightly emails with pictures of deer, raccoons, and foxes. That got old after about the first night. Luckily with a few clever schedules and false positive filters, I was able to avoid that. Again it’s all about the use cases, and what you want to accomplish with the cameras or smart home product. For some, it’s watching plants and wildlife, for others it is about home security of seeing who is at your front door when they ring the bell.
Which humidifier and sensors do you use?
This was a cool use case for testing out our smart plug combined with a smart humidity sensor. Essentially we use a few a non-smart Honeywell humidifiers in the bedrooms, combined with rules that turn them on/off using smart plugs. I’ve used SmartThings humidity sensors to automate and create rules to kick on the humidifier when it reaches certain levels or simply to have them run for a couple hours before we go to sleep.
Honeywell hub, Leviton Switches, Yale Lock
You use Leviton switches with your lighting?
When talking lighting controls, you first need to ask yourself if you want a wireless bulb, or a wireless wall switch or dimmer. So naturally I use both as there are use cases and situations where you would want one vs the other, or both at the same time. If it’s a wireless switch/dimmer in the wall that can either be controlled wirelessly or physically, anyone can walk up to use it like they have been for decades. No app needed, you don’t need to know that you can talk to it, and it is totally houseguest friendly. This also solves the problem when power is accidentally turned off to a smart bulb, making it not so smart.
That being said, smart switches and dimmers cannot control the color or color temperature of regular light bulbs. To use those features, smart bulbs that have color changing capabilities are where you should turn to. Just be sure to keep the power on so that your app/gateway/voice assistant of choice can control them. But just in case power is turned off, all of our ZigBee and Bluetooth products also have the added benefit built in where the bulbs come back on with the settings that they were at previously. So you will essentially get the best of both worlds.
Personally I like the flexibility to control the Leviton dimmers and SYLVANIA bulbs either by switch, app, or by voice. There is nothing sweeter than cleaning up for the night and asking Google or Alexa to “turn off all the lights” in the house.
Which garage door opener and smoke detector do you use?
This choice was based on the existing infrastructure, and the desired control system. I wanted to use the garage door openers that were already installed, but also tie them into the Honeywell security system. Luckily the Honeywell keypad had an optional Z-Wave control module that could be added to the main unit, and satellite Z-Wave garage door control units. Installation was a breeze, and in less than an hour I had both doors tied into the system.
Keeping with the same ecosystem, we have a few wireless smoke/CO/heat detectors from Honeywell so that if something were to happen the fire/police/ourselves would be notified. Having a workshop in our basement, I am always paranoid about the potential for a sawdust fire near the dust collector, so the heat detectors really give me peace of mind.
For me grouping all of the security focused products into one system made sense, however there are a lot of other great systems and products out there that can be tied together that do not necessarily have to come from the same manufacturer. Ultimately consumers have a lot of options to research and decide what works best for their personal situations.
What advice do you have for people just starting out?
I think brands are important, either from existing manufacturers or awesome startups. Typically one should avoid “off-brand” fly-by-night products and companies that may look like a good deal in the short term, but could leave you stranded if something happens to them. I recommend looking at companies that you trust and that have a good track record in the industry. Do your homework, read online reviews, and decide if they’re reputable. Do they have good customer service? Do they have a track record of multiple product launches? Are they available widely in store? Or maybe is the product just so damn cool that you’re willing to jump in and try it regardless?
At the end of the day our mission at LEDVANCE and others in the smart home industry is to create products and experiences that make our customers lives simpler, safer, and more enjoyable. Many of us work crazy hours, are glued to our phones for far too long, and can really benefit from a bit of home automation.
So admittedly I am not your typical user and have been playing in this space for over two decades. But hopefully readers who were brave enough to make it this far, will be inspired by a few use cases and take the plunge into smart home. Once you start, it is really hard to stop… My ending advice: start simple, then let the journey take you from there.
Here’s a list of what Aaron uses in his smart home.
- Honeywell Lynx Touch Wi-Fi Home Security Kit
- Yale Deadbolt Lock
- Axis Security Cameras
- SmartThings Sensors
- Z-Wave Garage Control Adapter
- Honeywell Fire Alarm
- Honeywell Home Panel
- QNAP Home Server
Check out these lighting options from Sylvania!