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Switched On: Light music


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Last month, Switched On discussed two of the Android expansion initiatives announced at Google's I/O conference -- the relatively easy to execute Android Open Accessory program and the relatively difficult to execute Android@Home initiative. In support of the latter, which would seek to wedge a new home networking standard among wireless systems such as Zigbee, Z-Wave and Insteon.

In making the case for Android@Home, Google showed off a new LED light bulb from Lighting Science Group that included the necessary data radio embedded in the bulb. The advantage versus traditional lighting controls is that it removes the requirement for an electrician (or at least advanced DIYer) to build the radio into the wall plate. NXP Semiconductors has also shown off both compact flourescent and LED bulbs that can be controlled wirelessly via smartphones and other devices. But in a quest to tackle two staples of the smart home in one flip of a switch,, speaker house Artison has teamed up with lighting company Sylvania. to create MusicLites. As its name suggests, MusicLites combines lighting controls and multi-zone distributed audio in in a single product, but is it an approach you'll buy into?

The core of MusicLites is the $250 MusicLites Model 1, an LED bulb designed to fit into a 4-inch recessed lighting can. The bulb's housing includes a 70mm loudspeaker, 20W RMS, Class D amplifier, wireless receiver, microprocessor, and signal processor. By default, MusicLites output stereo sound, but they can be set to either the act as a left or right speaker to produce greater separation depending on the layout of your room. According to Artison CEO Cary Christie, he'd had the idea for MusicLites many years ago, but it wasn't practical before the advent of affordable LEDs bright enough for home lighting. Alas, MusicLites won't pulse or strobe along to your beats in your mix. Sorry, DJs.

The second part of the system is a series of transmitters that plug into audio sources around the home -- USB for PCs, a rechargeable 30-pin option for iDevices, or analog RCA plugs for analog audio outputs. Finally, a basic remote control lets you choose among sources, raise and lower volumes, and mute.

Speaking of remotes, MusicLites is the most intriguing idea in whole-home audio since Sonos. Like the Sonos system, it creates its own mesh network in the home. And the MusicLites system is even more transparent and ambient than Sonos' audio boxes. On the other hand, unlike Sonos, MusicLites has no intelligence about what it is playing. However, with the rise of smartphone software to control music servers such as Apple's generically named Remote app for iTunes, that is becoming less important of a requirement..

MusicLites faces some other challenges as well. First, some customers may want to be able to control all their lighting without having to embed a speaker in every socket, leaving the question of wether Sylvania will make far less expensive lights that work the MusicLites protocol but do not include a speaker. Second, some customers who already have automated lighting system might like the idea of transparent whole-home audio, but are loath to have two wireless lighting systems in their home. While this is a very small market today, more energy companies, security companies, and even Verizon are getting into the home automation business. And in addition to the plethora of standards available today, low-power Bluetooth is targeting the market as well. That said, we are seeing more bridges built among these standards. Finally, lighting fixtures where never designed for optimal acoustic placement. It remains to be seen how well MusicLites output will traverse various lampshades and other coverings that are often used around bulbs.

One person's really expensive light bulb, though, is another's reasonably priced multi-room sound system; MusicLites seems like a promising approach in enabling our homes to bring more brightness to our eyes and ears.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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