A chat with Nanoleaf CEO Gimmy Chu on the HomeKit Insider podcast

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On this week's HomeKit Insider Podcast, Andrew and Stephen sit down for a talk about HomeKit and the smart home with Nanoleaf's CEO Gimmy Chu.

Gimmy Chu, Nanoleaf's CEO and co-founder joins us for an exclusive interview to talk about the development of its enabled Essentials line, how Apple helped the company succeed, and why he switches from Mac to PC and iOS to Android every couple years.

Listen for the full unabridged interview or read the edited transcript below.

Also this week, a new patent that shows Apple is working on a modular switch that will help detect motion and expand the HomeKit feature set. Though at the same time, Apple has discontinued the HomePod, and there's much to wonder about what this means for the future of HomeKit.

Gimmy Chu, Nanoleaf's CEO and co-founder joins us for an exclusive interview to talk about the development of its enabled Essentials line, how Apple helped the company succeed, and why he switches from Mac to PC and iOS to Android every couple years.

Listen for the full unabridged interview or read the edited transcript below.

Listener questions

This week we didn't have any time to get to any listener questions but continue to send your queries in and we'll do our best to answer them in our next episode.

Nanoleaf interview transcript

Nanoleaf works with HomeKit
Nanoleaf's products all work with HomeKit

AppleInsider: We have a third person joining us on this week's episode, the co-founder and CEO of Nanoleaf, Gimmy Chu.

Nanoleaf's Gimmy Chu: Yes, "Jimmy" with a "G!"

AI: Thanks for joining us.

Gimmy: Thanks for having me on the show, guys.

AI: Nanoleaf makes awesome HomeKit products. They have the shapes of various light panels, the new Essentials line, all this different stuff. Maybe since you're one of the co-founders, Gimmy, you tell us a little bit about why you and your compatriots started Nanoleaf.

Gimmy: That's a good question. I guess we're actually coming close to our 10-year anniversary.

So we started the company, we formally created our first legal entity, in 2012. Next year, we're going to be at our 10-year anniversary. So we're just thinking about this.

When we first started, we didn't care to create a business or anything like that. We just needed to create a legal entity in order to start this Kickstarter campaign. So I don't know if you knew, but we actually started off on Kickstarter.

Us three founders were all friends from the University of Toronto, we were part of the solar car team. So we're a bunch of students that made a solar car that competed in races with other schools. And we just had a passion for developing, you know, cool technology that could hopefully benefit people.

And we started off with a solar product, but we didn't know where to sell it to. So we're like, oh, let's just keep building stuff. Let's make a really energy efficient light bulb to go with it.

Yeah, the very first light bulb that we made ended up being the world's most energy efficient light bulb. And we're like, "well, everyone needs a light bulb". Nobody really needs a solar product. So let's just launch that on Kickstarter and see how it goes.

When we launched, it was originally called Nano Light. If you search for "Nano Light" on Kickstarter, you'll see our campaign. We just wanted to make cool products. After that Kickstarter campaign, we kind of got the attention of a couple VCs.

At that time, startups were all the rage and all these VC's were just pouring money into startups. These VC's found us and we're like, "hey, let us invest in you guys and hopefully, you guys could build a business out of this".

I remember one of my first questions that I asked them was "so am I supposed to quit my job now?" And they're like, "if you got to ask me that we're in trouble".

So it's kind of funny, but it took us a couple of years. One of the first things that we started working on was, you know, where do we think lighting was going to go? And it made sense that every light bulb was going to become connected.

We started thinking, okay, well, how do we actually make a connected light bulb? And of course, HomeKit was just starting back in 2015. And I remember thinking, how do we actually find the right person to talk to at Apple to see if we can make HomeKit-connected products?

We had no idea who to reach out to. Then on Quora, I found Tim Cook's email. People were talking and saying they emailed Tim Cook and he actually responded.

I thought, "what the heck, its worth a try, right?" and it was a couple days before Christmas and we were just getting ready to head to CES. I figured I had nothing to lose, I'm gonna send Tim Cook and email.

Then the following week, he actually responded. He connected me with some senior VP that connected me to another VP that eventually trickled down to the right level. And they arranged a meeting with me at CES where we learned the process to start working with Apple and how the MFi process works. Here's how you become a partner.

That was kind of the beginning of how we went from doing a Kickstarter project to actually creating a connected product with Apple HomeKit.

AI: Let me ask you this. Did you go to HomeKit first? Or did you kind of look at all the smart home stuff out there and chose HomeKit? Or was it one of a few that you were working on all at the same time?

Gimmy: Well, at that time in 2015, it wasn't really clear what was going on. Right?

HomeKit seemed to be the most mature. And we were actually striving to become the first HomeKit-enabled smart bulb. As you know, we lost to Philips. Philips released their product about a month before us. But of course, their stuff was RGB and our product was at the time, it was a white-only bulb.

This was before we actually released panels.

But we were also looking at what Google was doing and what Android was doing. At that time, they were doing stuff like Google Weave and nothing really came out of it.

So yeah, we built everything off of HomeKit and it created the foundation of all of our products. And it also built a really good relationship with Apple because from there, we were one of the few, one of the early partners with Apple HomeKit.

That got us a meeting with their retail team. And even though they didn't stock our bulbs at the time, eventually when we created our panel products, they were intrigued and they were like, hey, let's try this out at Apple Stores. And for us, a startup, that was a dream come true.

AI: A lot of people will probably know Nanoleaf from your panels. I mean, those are like in the background of seemingly every single gamer online, but recently, and what we've talked about quite a bit on the show is your new Essentials line. That of course has Thread alongside HomeKit baked in.

And at the moment it's exclusive through the Apple Store. How did that happen? How did the Essential line come to be? And how did you snag that spot in Apple Stores, especially at such a good price point. I mean, these are, these are really quite affordable.

Gimmy: That whole project started, I would say, about a year and a half ago.

This was around the end of 2019. At that time, we were already thinking we needed to get into the bulb business. Not sure if you're aware, but we're going into lighting controls with something that we're calling the Learning Series.

As part of that, we need endpoints to control. We need more than panels — we need bulbs, we need light strips, we need light fixtures, and this was kind of our vision for what we called the Nanoleaf Essentials.

When we first started talking to Apple about it we shared with them some of our, I guess, challenges that we faced with standards. There was ZigBee, there was Wi-Fi, there was Bluetooth, and at the time, but they all had shortcomings.

We were leaning towards something called Bluetooth Mesh, which was actually a little bit better for lighting, but it still wasn't perfect. I think the main thing with Bluetooth Mesh was that it was going to be much more reliable. And it was, it was meant for a lot more devices than than just Bluetooth and didn't have some of the issues with ZigBee and Wi-Fi.

When we told them that we were creating bulbs and light strips, they were like, "actually, this is a perfect opportunity to share with you what one of the new initiatives that we have," which was Thread.

We were completely caught by surprise, because I think Thread was something that everyone had talked about for years, but it never became a reality. I think that the missing part was Apple didn't actually vocalize that they were going down that path and supporting it.

Thread was the standard that was spearheaded by the folks at Google. It's built into a lot of Google's Nest devices. But it wasn't widely adopted. I think what we needed was Apple to commit to using Thread in order for the industry to go down that path.

For us, we changed gears really quickly. We had to stop what we were doing with Bluetooth mesh and we decided to just rejig everything to work with Thread.

We ended up launching a couple of months later.

We wanted to do our best to align it with what Apple was going to announce around Thread. Of course, Apple being Apple, they didn't actually tell us what they were launching. And we had no idea that they were launching a HomePod mini.

Both sides had to just build to spec. We had to send our bulbs to them to test because we they didn't give us access to iOS 12 that supported Thread. So it was it was interesting, but it was definitely a great partnership and and we got things working really quickly. And so far, it seems to be working really well.

AI: We actually just recently got one of your A19 bulbs, they were 20 bucks on the Apple Store, which it was just an awesome deal. Especially no hub needed.

You get a smart light bulb and it changes colors, has Thread, supports HomeKit. And we were curious, what are some of the things that you have either researched or looked into or have found about color, and maybe mood and even productivity?

What is your experience with colors and that kind of stuff. And how important is that for people's work?

Gimmy: I think for people's work, white light is probably still going to be the baseline and white light is basically the full spectrum of light given to you whereas the colors end up being more accents.

When you use our bulb you'll notice that we actually put a lot of care into the white light that it emits. Everything from a cool white to a warm white is extremely bright and accurate. And really the science is based around like how humans have evolved.

Humans have evolved to be under natural light. Which, if you think about the sky, when the sun is rising, when the sun is setting, you get the different shades of white because of how the light refracts through our our ozone layer and the clouds. You get the warm whites throughout the morning and the evening and you get the cool whites more when the light is brightly overhead.

So I think that is just evolution saying that, "hey, circadian lighting makes a lot of sense." Being able to bring that inside is really good.

Where the colors come into play is to create accents and other moods. If you just want to hang out and in a little gamer lair I think that that's a pretty common use case.

I have a scene that that I love, which is called like starry nights. It's based on the Starry Nights painting. And I just have a bunch of bulbs that just kind of go through the blues and the yellows in a really like a dark setting. And it just helps me to kind of chill.

I think it's different for everybody. With our light panel products, I think that that was much more evident, because you could create a much bigger surface of light. It kind of creates like this window effect. And I know a lot of people that use it to energize themselves. They just put it the bright white light.

It's a very good use case for light. Especially think about COVID. Everyone's stuck at home all day long, especially during wintertime. It's really depressing. As an example, my brother, he has a wall of like, 30 panels just right in front of his computer. And he has it on a schedule of white light.

I experienced it at his house. I was like, this actually feels good. You know, throughout the day, I feel really energized. At nighttime, it automatically dims down and it makes a lot of sense.

AI: Going back auto the Essentials line again, because we're fairly obsessed with them. The packaging on these is fantastic. We love it. The box is white with cutouts that reveal a vivid color spectrum on the box inside. But when you do open them, there's a little line that says, "this is just the beginning." So, where do you see the Essentials line going?

Gimmy: That's a really good question! That was kind of like an Easter egg that we put into the packaging.

Since last year, we've been working on something called the Learning Series. And this is where it introduces a lot of sensors and automation and intelligence into controlling lights. So this is where we believe Smart lighting is lacking.

When people think about smart lighting, they think about a bulb that connects through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, that they could connect to their phone. And they maybe could use their voice assistant to turn it off. But that's not actually smart. That's just a glorified remote control for your life.

There's no intelligence, there's no automation to tie to it. Sure, you might be able to run a schedule, but that's not smart. What we really need is a light that turns on for you. And it turns off when when you're not using it, and it puts it to the right light setting.

When I think of smart light, I think of a little fairy that flies around and just kind of turns on and off the lights for you. You don't have to think about it anymore. And with the Learning Series, that's where we're trying to get to.

With the Essentials products, that's the essential aspect of it. We need lighting products to control, there's intelligence that will need to interact with these products. And this is something that we've been working hard for several years to build towards.

Of course, it's not yet on the market, it's not yet ready. But this is where we believe the future of lighting needs to be.

AI: Looking at your shapes. You can now get different shapes to plug into whatever panels you have. You have your light panels, there are the triangle shapes, little triangles, all of that to make different patterns. Then you have Canvas. Where should one start with all that if they don't have any Nanoleaf smart panels yet?

Gimmy: Shapes is the newest lineup, all the new shapes, products, they're they're all interoperable.

There's the hexagons shapes, triangles, and mini triangles. You can mix and match those products. And I would say that that's our third generation of light panel products.

The original light panels — used to be called Aurora, but then we ran into some trademark issues — that one that was kind of our first product, our first claim to fame. But they only supported up to 30 panels in a single setup.

From there, we went to Canvas. That's the square panels. What we were trying to achieve was kind of edge-to-edge illumination, so that there was no like dark corners. With the square panels, you'll notice that it doesn't have dark corners, but you do see kind of a crosshair in the middle of it. And that was just how we got the optics to work.

That one supported up to 500 panels. So you can actually do like an entire wall of these lights.

Then the Shapes product line is kind of the best of all worlds. It's got connectors that connect different types of shapes together, it supports up to 500 panels, then each panel is touch-activated. So you could even play games on it, you could you could set up with HomeKit buttons for each of the panels in order to like trigger HomeKit scenes with the touch of a panel.

You can have it interact with the actual scenes themselves. Yeah, it's pretty cool.

AI: The only drawback at this point though is none of your smart lighting panels support Thread at this point.

Gimmy: Well, there actually is a thread radio in that product. There are plans that we have for how we want to utilize Thread. It's just not enabled yet.

You'll hear more from us on how we're actually going to utilize that Thread radio in the next few months.

At the same time, we only need a single controller for all those panels. So Wi-Fi works fine with those products and there's a place for Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth.

One of Thread's biggest benefits is energy consumptions so for low-energy products it makes a lot of sense.

For light bulbs, as an example, as soon as you flip the switch it is rebooting. Our light panels, we run a light version of Linux on there. So it takes a good 10-20 seconds in order to boot up. One of the best things is our bulbs and light panels are always powered on and just turning the light on and off on demand.

AI: We probably shouldn't be surprised you already have the Thread hardware in there. You've done similar stuff before — including hardware and activating later. We remember back when you launched the Rhythm sensor and it had a motion sensor baked in that you were silent on and then it was just enabled in a beta out of nowhere.

Gimmy: Yeah, that was our first stab at doing motion sensing within our products. We had the Rhythm module but the motion sensing started interfering with people's 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, so we had to disable it.

It was a little bit of a screw up. And it wasn't everyone who was impacted but it was enough disable. We used a 10GHz Doppler radar that was able to sense motion coming towards or away from the Rhythm module. But since the Doppler was interfering with some Wi-Fi, we figured it wasn't worth messing with people's networks.

We put it as a beta and populated a warning that let them know it may have issues and they could deactivate it at any time.

AI: Gimmy, you alluded to the fact you have a HomePod and you use that. You obviously have HomeKit support in your products but you have Alexa and Google Assistant. What do you use in your home to control all of your devices?

You mentioned before you were operating system-fluid.

Gimmy: There is a very good reason why I use Windows sometimes. Right now, I'm using the Razor Blade laptop and I do like it. I admit I am a bit of a gamer, so it hits the spot for me.

But I do switch operating systems every cycle. Part of the reason that a few years ago, I went from iOS to Android and I felt so frustrated at how to do everything. I felt like I was getting old and wasn't curious about new technology.

I was getting set in my ways. One of the things I love most about Nanoleaf is being involved with product design.

So when you're set in your ways, it influences your design decisions. It's not a good way to be.

Because of that, I try to switch back and forth. Right now I'm using an iPhone, so I love using HomeKit. Our devices are most closely tied to HomeKit.

Plus, Google Assistant and Alexa, they rely on the cloud. So if your internet is down, you're out of luck in controlling your devices. I also love using Control Center to control my HomeKit devices as well.

I don't actually use voice assistants all that much though. I find it weird talking to myself.

AI: A few episodes back, we talked about how to set up shortcuts so that you can program a large variety of responses for Siri that are randomized. It makes it feel at least a little less like you're talking to yourself.

Shifting the topic a bit, what is the coolest Nanoleaf installation you've seen — and not one you created for CES or something.

Gimmy: Recently, since there is a new Jurassic Park show, we did a campaign with them. They created this dinosaur with our Shapes product line. We called this dinosaur Rexy and it's awesome. I want to recreate this in my house!

We've even seen users and families share on social media themselves recreating Rexy in their homes and showing their kids interacting with it. It's really cute.

AI: We're huge fans of the Shapes series. Definitely felt more limited with the original Aurora panels versus the new Shapes.

The only issue is I haven't set anything up in our new house yet because I cant commit to a design! I want to! put something up in the studio but agh!

Am I going to change my mind? Then I cant really change it once mounted. So I keep going back and forth on what I want to do but I just cant commit to do anything with it.

Gimmy: During the original design process, we thought about that. We thought it would be cool if you could remove them and rearrange them. We experimented with magnetic mounting plates in the back but for now it's installed with double-sided tape so there is some degree of commitment.

With the Shapes line we did make some improvements so when you're removing them they are easier to remove and won't screw up your walls.

There are some people who love sitting around and brainstorming what designs to make and there are others — I'm part of the second ground — that just want it to be up on their wall and I don't have to do anything.

AI: By the way, don't you have an AR feature in the app so you can visualize it on your wall before mounting?

Gimmy: Yeah, yeah our product team is awesome. They used Apple's ARKit and we used that. They're working on tying it in with our shop so you can create something on your wall with AR and buy the whole package from our website.

AI: Well, thank you again Gimmy for stopping by!

Gimmy: No problem, it was great to be here.

Stay tuned for more!

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