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Executive interview: George Yianni, head of technology, Philips Hue

In 2007, Wi-Fi required dongles, Bluetooth was for streaming music and smart lights didn’t exist in people’s homes – but then George Yianni had an idea

Philips was not the first smart lighting company, but it was the Philips Hue product family that captured the public’s imagination. Now owned by Signify, Philips Hue smart lighting is finding new ways to brighten people’s homes.

Its inventor, George Yianni, was a very early adopter of the first iPhone in 2007. The head of technology at Signify for Philips Hue, he successfully pitched the idea to Philips.

Yianni was the original designer behind the Hue system, and says he flew back from the US with a jailbroken device that would prove instrumental in showing what was possible in controlling lighting via a software-based remote, instead of using hardware. 

“I was an early adopter of the first iPhone,” he says. “I went to the US and jailbroke it. The first thing I did was look at the Philips LivingColor remote. I had this smartphone, which meant I could reduce iteration time from months to hours by developing a software version of a physical lighting remote control. You immediately saw the power of what the device was possible of doing.”

Yianni was once a researcher at Oxford University’s quantum information group, but in 2005 the future of quantum was not clearly set out, he says, adding: “I wanted to do something more practical.”

At that time, says Yianni, the world of quantum involved proving theoretical models rather than working on real-world application areas. “I wanted to do something in engineering, to build real things,” he says. “I wanted to do more systems design than hardcore physics.”

Yianni spent a year at Autonomy, the data discovery company whose founder, UK entrepreneur Mike Lynch, is currently in the high court facing allegations of fraud, following the sale of the company to HP.

At Autonomy, Yianni specialised in computational models. “I initially joined Autonomy as a software engineer to work on its big data platform,” he says. “I stayed there for about a year. I hated the fact that there was a single huge product with hundreds of engineers working on it, which meant your individual contribution was small.”

“In the end, if you want to innovate fast, you need to be in control of as much of the system as possible”

George Yianni, Philips Hue

He says he prefers working on smaller-scale products, where it is possible to do something new. That is why he left to join Philips’ lighting division.

When Yianni joined Philips in 2007, lighting control systems were mainly used for specialist application areas, but he pitched the idea of smart lighting.

His thinking was: “What does a software connection mean for lighting?” and such greenfield concepts really appealed to him. “I was one of the three people who got to work on the first control system,” he says.

The fact that it was a greenfield project, and the the team was small, enabled Yianni and his collaborators to make rapid progress.

Although Philips had an enormous heritage in lighting across different industries, it was not really thinking about how such products could be delivered to consumers in a way that would make it easy for them to buy and install, he says.

At the time, proprietary colour control lighting systems were extremely expensive, putting them out of reach for many consumers. But the availability of low-cost microcontrollers made it possible to provide hardware at a fraction of the cost, making the technology applicable to a totally different domain of users, says Yianni.

He says his team was able to take the application knowledge Philips had in niche industries and apply it to other uses, such as providing smart lighting in people’s homes.

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In 2007, when Yianni began working on smart lighting, Wi-Fi was expensive, unreliable and power-hungry. “The world in 2007 was quite different from today,” he says. “When we started Hue, we made a giant list of pros and cons for what we were trying to achieve – all the things we cared about and the technological ways to get them done.”

Wi-Fi chipsets were expensive and routers had a lot of reliability issues, he says. “Wi-Fi radios consumed 2+ watts of power in standby mode. Given these constraints, people used to connect Wi-Fi dongles to their laptops. This meant it was not a good candidate for low-powered smart lighting.”

So Wi-Fi wasn’t fit for lighting, says Yianni, and neither was Bluetooth. “Bluetooth was just for audio streaming and Bluetooth Low Energy did not exist,” he says.

Another option was low-power mesh networking. Zigbee and z-wave technology were designed for the internet of things (IoT) – they had low power utilisation and used mesh networking, which offers better reliability over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. But Zigbee – the choice Philips Hue ultimately took – did not tick all the boxes, says Yianni.

“It requires a bridge to connect to smartphones, but it is still the best choice for today,” he says. “Zigbee is well proven and provides good interoperability between  different brands. Nothing else we looked at ticked the boxes in the same way.”

That said, the company has never stopped looking at other connectivity options. This month, Signify released Philips Hue with Bluetooth smart lighting to lower the entry barrier for people to get started with the Hue system. The lighting connects via Bluetooth to a new Hue smartphone app, and so does not require the Zigbee-enabled Hue bridge.

While the new light does away with Zigbee, the Hue bridge is the choice for anyone who wants to be able to control multiple lights. But a Zigbee bridge to control Hue lighting is built into Amazon’s Echo Show and Echo Plus devices and Yianni believes there is no reason why a home Wi-Fi router could not add Zigbee connectivity and run software to control Hue lights.

But Yianni believes the Hue bridge will remain a core component of the system. “In the end, if you want to innovate fast, you need to be in control of as much of the system as possible,” he says.

Working with third parties

Although Yianni recognises the need to keep control of the overall system, he has seen benefits in opening up the software. During Hue’s development, he says: “I designed a scalable repeatable way for apps to talk to the bridge. It was always the intention to let other people talk to the bridge. We could not have our app cover everything, so we opened up the APIs [application programming interfaces] and provided tools and documentation to support software developers.”

Opening up the APIs has been a huge success for the Hue system, says Yianni, and there are now 700 integrations.

Asked what are his favourite apps, he says: “There is an app from Convo Lights in New York, which provides live transcription of phone calls for people with hearing impairment. They thought Hue would be a perfect solution. The app blinks Hue lights and changes their colour to signal that there is an incoming call. You can have colour effects, a bit like different ringtones, for your mum or girlfriend. It is a great app.”

For Yianni, one of the weirdest apps he has come across is Exoplanet for Hue, which is for amateur astronomers who have a telescope in a shed in their back garden. “Astronomy requires total darkness,” he says. “When you are imaging things in the night sky, the camera only captures certain colour frequencies. The app sets the Hue lights in the garden shed to a light colour that won’t affect what is being photographed.”

He says the most popular third-party app is Hue Disco, which uses a microphone to synchronise Hue lights to music.

Beyond cool apps, Yanni says: “What excites me the most is how interacting with IoT products can be smart and interactive and supports your life.”

He believes a lot of contextual information can be collected from consumer-based IoT devices such as the Philips Hue smart lights. “Today we force people to make a lot of choices,” he says. “If we can make that process a lot easier for everyone. It’s a win-win.

“For example, when you walk into a room and press a button, the lighting should understand what it needs to do all by itself.” 

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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