C by GE: the Evolution of Smart Home Lighting
With C by GE, GE Lighting, a Savant Company, is creating a new smart home ecosystem for the everyday consumer.
We first met the folks from GE Lighting last fall at the Smart Home Summit. Unlike most trade shows we attend, it was a small, intimate conference, so we got a chance to talk to almost everyone.
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At the conference, GE Lighting did a joint talk with Google about improving the consumer experience for smart home lighting with their C by GE brand, making set-up and usage much easier than in the past.
Improving the user experience was a common theme at the conference. All of us acknowledged that while we had all been fascinated by smart home tech for years (some of us for decades), most people are not going to buy a light bulb or switch that they need to spend an entire weekend installing and getting to work, plus more time troubleshooting it if it doesn’t work as expected.
At this point I was skeptical. All I knew about GE lighting at this point was a set-up video that had gone viral about the reset procedure for their light bulbs. It seemed the entire Internet was laughing at the video that asked people to turn a switch on and off multiple times in a certain sequence to get their lights up and running again. But the GE Lighting team at the event seemed authentic and determined and gave us hope for the future.
At CES we visited the GE Lighting suite to see their new C by GE products and learn their plans for 2020. They had a great set up highlighting their new lighting products for many common home scenarios: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom. They had some really clever ideas and beautiful industrial designs. We were happy to see they designed the switches even for older homes, so that you don’t have to have a new house to use a smart switch. It felt really well thought out and well-built for the true mass market of consumers, not just geeks like us.
Our history with smart lighting
When we first got started in the smart home, Mark kept coming home with Phillips Hue bulbs from the Apple Store. Back then they were outrageously priced, around 70 bucks a bulb, and could only be controlled with a phone app, using the Phillips Hue bridge we attached to our Internet router.
The Hue bulbs are fun. You can adjust them in thousands of color combinations and turn them on and off from wherever you were in the world. We had them in our nightstands and sometimes when Mark was traveling, he’d pull out his phone to show them off to whomever he was with, and turn my light purple or green, or turn it on and off. Fun, but kind of annoying and not that useful.
One thing we discovered right away with smart light bulbs – as soon as you turn off the switch, they don’t work. And it’s hard to get out of the habit of turning on and off the switch. Plus, isn’t it easier to turn a switch on and off than to get out your phone, wait for an app to launch, then click it on? Other than having to get up from the couch, the phone took longer.
Smart Switches vs Smart Bulbs
It didn’t take us long to figure out that smart switches worked a lot better. You could use your regular lamp or light fixture with an existing light bulb and reliably turn on and off the lights whenever you want. Plus, since we could replace our existing light switches and outlets with the in-wall smart versions, they looked more elegant, like they came with the house, not a wall wart sticking out, oftentimes blocking the second outlet.
When we first started buying these smart switches, we could only find switches using Z-Wave, a common, low-power smart home standard. To use them, we needed to buy a Z-Wave compatible hub, so we started with SmartThings.
Soon we figured out how to do lots more with our smart switches. We could group them, set them on timers and schedules, and set them up to be triggered by motion sensors or events, like dusk and dawn. The prices for smart bulbs came down but we still preferred these in-wall switches. They worked reliably and looked and operated just like our existing wall switches. When friends or family came over, they could still turn on the light with a switch.
Getting more control of our lighting
In the years to follow, we experimented with four other smart home hubs before coming back to SmartThings. All of them had their own strengths and issues. Two went out of business. Often we had to switch because some individual product we wanted to use required one over the other. There were times we were using two or three at one time. It could get confusing remembering which device was hooked up to which hub.
Everything became much easier when we got Alexa. Alexa worked with our smart home hubs right away and could turn on and off all our lights, as long as we remembered what we named them. Over the last few years, more and more bulbs and switches have come on the market that work with Alexa (or Google Assistant), without needing a separate smart home hub. Up until recently, these were mostly limited to smart plugs and bulbs, instead of our favorite in-wall switches and outlets.
Lighting for the rest of us
Of course, we are geeks. We enjoy trying out new devices and learning how they work. But when we talk to our friends about Z-Wave and Zigbee and Bluetooth Mesh, their eyes glaze over. They love the idea of controlling their lighting, but they don’t want to tinker. They just want it to work. And they want to be able to easily buy it, install it and set it up in 15 minutes or less. Or better yet, buy it and have someone else install it.
In creating their new product line, C by GE has done the work to appeal to the mass market. They talked to lots of different consumers, regular people like our friends, who love the idea of smart lighting for convenience, for comfort, for security. They don’t want to come home to a dark house, they want lights to come on so it looks like they are home, they want the lights to go off automatically so they don’t waste energy. They don’t necessarily care if the lights can turn purple and red. And they don’t want to have to buy extra equipment.
These consumers are also looking for brands they can trust enough to bring into their homes. GE is already one of those brands – and thousands of people already trust it enough to buy home appliances. The brand brings an expectation of quality and reliability.
Building a new smart lighting platform
C by GE took this research and have started to build a new smart home platform from scratch. They bring more than 130 years of lighting, all the way back to Edison, and they are combining it with software to build products that consumers can take home from stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot and install at home, without needing to buy and configure a separate hub. Their goal is to have a customer up in running in 10 minutes and be happy with the experience.
Creating this experience takes more than developing great hardware. C by GE knows how to create beautiful bulbs and switches with sleek looks and elegant industrial design. They also know how to manufacture for global markets and sell them through international retail channels.
But in order to create a new system, they need great software – both firmware to connect the devices and make them function, and an elegant app that consumers can use to set up the lighting and make it work inside and outside the home. Software at that level is not something that comes naturally to a company like GE Lighting but they have recruited and built a development team to make it happen.
Accelerating the platform with Savant
All this was going along well but recent news promises to take it to another level. This spring GE lighting announced it was being acquired by Savant Systems, a leading smart home system provider. Savant completed the acquisition on July 1st.
Savant already has an operating system of sorts for the home, with 15 years of experience connecting to more than 15,000 different devices and networks and a beautiful consumer facing application interface. By working with Savant, C by GE should be able to accelerate their existing development to make their consumer experiences even better, and connect with other devices in the home to make their lighting products a part of a larger ecosystem. The team’s goal is to help consumers realize what’s possible with this technology – to discover things they never imagined when they bought a switch off the shelf and brought it home.
Another thing that’s increasingly important to consumers today is privacy. While other companies may collect and use your data to sell you advertising or products, C by GE doesn’t have that motivation. They believe every consumer owns their own data, and they do not plan to share user data with third parties. Most every smart home user today is giving up a piece of their privacy, often willingly in exchange for services they value. But if you think about it, do you really want companies to know how many times you turn on and off the light in your bathroom?
The technology behind the platform
To build their platform, C by GE has used both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The individual switches, bulbs, smart plugs and light strips talk to each other inside your home using Bluetooth. This means that they operate within their own network inside your house, without requiring the Internet. They should be faster and more responsive when you use the app (or a switch or remote) and if your Internet goes down, timers and automations that you create with the app should all still work.
Bluetooth is great for inside the home, but what if you want to turn your lights on and off remotely? To do this, the C by GE devices need to talk to the Internet. So the C by GE powered switches (both the in-wall and smart plug versions) also include Wi-Fi. The bulbs talk to the switches, and the switches talk to the Internet, so you can operate your lights from your favorite voice assistant or from anywhere in the world.
C by GE has created their own app to control all their products, so you can group them together, set them on schedules, and control them when you’re away from home, similar to our Z-Wave switches we have been using for years. But unlike our Z-Wave switches – the C by GE products don’t need a separate hub.
While the C by GE app works fine, the easiest way to control your lights in your smart home today is with your voice. C by GE products connect easily to both Google Assistant and Alexa, with Apple HomeKit functionality planned some time in the future.
Lighting for most every type of home and consumer
As of today, C by GE has a robust line of smart lighting products that work in all different kinds of homes. For newer homes that already have a neutral (white) wire installed in the electrical box, they make a line of four-wire smart switches and dimmers that replace standard light switches. For older homes without the neutral wire, they have a line of three-wire smart switches that work out of the box or in some cases, with an adapter.
In addition to the in-wall wired switches, C by GE also offers wire-free switches you can use to control your lights around the house. You can mount them on a wall or just leave it on your nightstand to turn on and off individual or groups of lights, all configured in the C by GE app.
To complete their product line, C by GE has white and color LED bulbs, a smart plug, and fun and functional Color LED light strips, as well as a wire-free motion sensor you can use to automate all the lighting.
With C by GE, GE Lighting, together with Savant, are creating a new smart home ecosystem that homeowners will appreciate.
They are still getting started, filling out their product line and adding functionality to their app. As they become more fully integrated with Savant over the next year, we expect the user experience (and app) will grow into a very robust and easy to use smart home ecosystem. We look forward to seeing how they’ve grown at CES 2021 (virtually, of course).