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Smart Home

Shade brings learning software to a light switch

An in-wall dimmer switch, Shade learns your lighting habits and can adjust the brightness and color of your bulbs accordingly.

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Lime Green Labs

Shade wants to build a closer relationship between you and your light switch. As you use it, it learns your preferences for brightness and color and begins to automate the process by anticipating your needs. What's more, Shade promises that the switch's embedded photocells will even save energy (and you a few bucks) by adapting to ambient light and dimming the bulb when sunlight is strong.

Compatible with Philips color changing LEDs and regular dimmable bulbs, the Shade Light Switch installs over a standard switch box, both rocker-style and single pole. A simple dial hides the more advanced functionality underneath and gives the switch the familiar look of a standard dimming knob. Turn and push the dial for basic controls or use the iOS or Android apps to set and customize schedules over Wi-Fi.

The Kickstarter campaign supporting Shade launched on Tuesday. You'll get one dimmer for a pledge of $88 (which converts to about £56 in the UK and AU$101), a package of three costs $239 (£151 and AU$274) and there are sets of five and 10 dimmers available as well. Shade will ship anywhere in the world once it's ready. The hardware is still being prototyped, and the estimated delivery date isn't until August 2015.

Hardware challenges

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Lime Green Labs

Curiously, Lime Green Labs, the startup behind Shade, is offering Arduino boards and a download of the Arduino source code with several Kickstarter packages. Packages with just DIY instructions and no units will arrive as early as December. Thus, its software will be shippable eight months before the hardware is ready. It seems odd to offer DIY enthusiasts a way to craft a homemade Shade on their own without paying for the actual product.

Though I like that supporters have the option to do it themselves, I also wonder whether Shade is confident it can get the hardware right. The prototype shown in the Kickstarter video looks workable, but it is large. Lime Green Labs knows what it has in the software, and it's almost ready. Getting the hardware down to size so it can fit seamlessly into a wall switch will indeed be a difficult task.

Software promises

The software's dimming feature does look cool. Either you set a preferred brightness level, or it learns through your usage and the photocells adjust to how bright you prefer your room to be. Then, it balances ambient light vs. bulb output to keep an even level. As mentioned, if more sunlight streams through the window, Shade will dim the lighting level accordingly. And if a cloud covers the sun, the switch should adjust again.

Lime Green Labs

Shade also promises that you can manually turn the lights on or off, or adjust the lighting level without interrupting your scheduling in the future. Add in geolocation and the ability to learn color preferences with Philips Hue bulbs, and Shade's list of features becomes impressively long. I'm concerned, though, that Shade will be able to deliver on all of its goals. Though Nest's thermostat proved that learning technology can bring new life to old home features, the long list of variables that Shade hopes to control -- from brightness to color to automated schedules -- is a big challenge.

Once the initial model is released, Lime Green Labs is planning updates, including IFTTT compatibility and the ability to share schedules across switches. Those are promising, but there's one more update I'd like to see. Though a single switch can control a bank of regular lights or a group of Hue bulbs, it can't yet adjust those Hue bulbs individually for true customization.

The tactile smart home

Despite a push for home automation, physical controls are making a comeback. Indeed, a common problem with smart products is their reliance on apps and the difficulty of syncing usage for multiple family members. Restricting physical interaction in exchange for digital controls becomes tedious when you have to tell someone not to flip a switch because it'll interfere with your automation.

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Lime Green Labs

Fixing that problem through both physical and app controls is the core of the light switch's appeal, but it's not the only product to do so. The Wink Relay , another wall mounted switch takes a similar approach. It has customizable buttons and a touchscreen that can act as a central control panel to a setup of connected devices. It's more comprehensive than Shade, but it also costs $300 (and is only available in the US).

Its affordable price and learning capabilities make Shade unique in the field of lighting. It could act as a nice meeting point between different smart bulbs and standard bulbs throughout a house. If its software is as good as it says and if Lime Green Labs can get the hardware right, Shade looks to be an interesting next step in smart-bulb capabilities.

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