Minneapolis, MN-based Spark is looking to enable a ‘smart lights’ revolution with a small piece of hardware that sits between a light bulb and light fixture and connects to the internet to provide users the ability control their lights via their smartphones. The hardware startup launched its Kickstarter campaign earlier this month and is looking to provide integrations with a wide range of other hardware startups in addition its API, which will allow any developer to build apps that interact with a user’s lights.
Some of Spark’s more recent partnerships and collaborations with startups in the realm of ‘connected devices’ include Twine, which will enable controlling lights through sensors, and Pebble‘s smartwatch, which means users will be able to control their lights through their watches. Some of the other companies it’s looking to approach include Lockitron, providers of keyless entry through a user’s phone, SmartThings, which enables notifications for everything ranging from when a user’s dog goes off leash to when a window has been opened in their house, and Ubi, an always-on voice-activated computer.
“We’re trying to show that when you have these cool hardware products, all created by startups using open standards, you can create this really cool ecosystem of things that work together when everybody collaborates,” said founder Zach Supalla in an interview with BetaKit. “Some of the use cases are the traditional home automation stuff but perhaps made easier and [more] powerful because they can be done from anywhere.”
Spark devices will allow users to interact with their lights in several ways, starting with turning lights on, off, or dimming them right from their phone. Users will also be able to program their lights to do things like turn on as soon as they are within a given proximity, or alert parents when their children are close by, and gradually turn on to a pre-set time as part of their morning alarm. Perhaps more interesting usages of the product include what Supalla referred to as ‘ambient data,’ which means presenting things like email, text, or social media notifications with a flicker of the lights, which would be useful for hearing-impaired people. The device itself was inspired by Supalla’s hearing-impaired father’s experiences with his smartphone.
Although the idea of home automation isn’t new, with existing solutions like Lutron and Crestron, Supalla believes that in addition to being too expensive for an everyday user, they also come with a higher learning curve. Some other developments in ‘smarter lights’ also include another startup, LifX, a WiFi enabled, multi-color, LED light bulb that users can control via their iPhone or Android devices, and Hue, manufactured by Philips and sold exclusively through the Apple Store, which provides much of the same functionality. Supalla noted that although he believes LED lightbulbs are the future, it will take time before they’re at a price point where they can be purchased and installed across the board. With Spark devices to retail at $59 (discounted to $49 on Kickstarter), the company believes it offers a much less expensive, more accessible product. But LifX offers its bulbs for $69 each on Kickstarter, and it doesn’t require users to buy bulbs and a device, rather it replaces a regular lightbulb.
One problem affecting hardware startups on Kickstarter is actually manufacturing the product post-campaign, and Spark recognizes the difference between being able to create a prototype and being able to swing into full-fledged production. That’s why the company has partnered with Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing consultancy that has worked with earlier Kickstarter projects including Makerbot, Sphero, and Pebble, in addition to partnering with North Pole Engineering, a firm with experience in WiFi-enabled system design.
The biggest challenge for the company may just be Kickstarter’s recent policy to only allow one unit per reward. Supalla said backers are requesting multiple units given the nature of the Spark device, and said they might already have reached their fundraising goal had it not been for the recent changes (though they could offer a kit that came with several devices in it). He said given the upcoming collaborations and through promoting the product to the hearing-impaired community more actively, the startup hopes to deliver a product that could literally put the spark back in lighting.
Whether the demand is there from consumers is another question – the company has raised just over $73,000 of it’s $250,000 fundraising goal with 16 days to go, and the campaign’s success should be a good barometer of whether people want to control the lights in their home using their smartphone. With LifX raising $1.3 million (well over its $100,000 funding goal) on November 14, it seems the appetite for smart, connected lightbulbs is definitely there.