Smart lights, like most things huddling under the umbrella of internet of things, are anything but smart.
(Considering our own ability to mess things up, this stupidity may be for the best.)
Buying Hue lights or other smart home devices today is buying into a kind of expensive hobby full of little research projects and surprising limitations, a world still waiting (begging, even) for decent standards adoption.
If you are prepared for this, it can be a great deal of fun and very rewarding.
If not, you may be somewhat put off to learn you need to buy extra hardware for the luxury of being able to control your lights using light switches.
Yeah, I know, pretty futuristic to have dedicated physical buttons for the lights around your house. What will they think of next?
As you might guess, I broke down and bought myself some Hue lights. This is my story so far.
Always a step zero
When the urge to buy strikes, I sometimes fall into the trap of wanting the thing right now. Fortunately, the store I went to did not have the things I had decided on, because I realized I had missed the important first step of checking which types of sockets I needed bulbs for. A heartfelt thank you to Philips for making the socket type so clear on the packaging that even my eyes glazed over by hunger for Things noticed it. I went back home, made a list of my sockets, quieted my rushing mind and ordered the right starter package online. The package contains the bridge - another puck-type box for your stack by the router which controls all the lamps and related devices - and three bulbs. I also got a Hue go and a lightstrip plus to round things off.
Basic setup was nice and simple. Connect bulbs, make sure they are switched on. Connect the bridge to power and the network. Get the Hue app and connect it to the bridge by pushing the one button on the bridge when prompted from the app. The bridge finds new lamps by itself, and through the app (or a web interface) you can name the lamps and group them into rooms. Then you can assign colours and brightness to both individual lamps and groups, as well as toggling groups and lamps on and off at will. You can also create scenes, which set a group of lamps to a saved setup of brightness and colour. No difficult or surprising parts so far.
The first difficult thing is to stop using the old light switches. Flip the switch off, and the lamp can of course not react to commands anymore. It does, however, always come back on when you switch the flip on again. My understanding beforehand was that using switches at all was a no-no, but because the lamp turns on the transition is a lot easier than I feared. Still, the system really wants power to always be on.
Going into the app and playing around is all well and good, but there are more options to experiment with.
First up is extra hardware. Philips make motion sensors and physical switches, and I have heard good things about both but not tried either. I am tempted by both however, one switch should cover all my needs at home, and I really like the idea of a motion sensor in the bathroom triggering a really soft and low light at night. So we shall see.
Then, there is quick access through other services on the device with the app. I use IOS, so that is the side I know anything about. You can set up quick buttons in a home screen widget, allowing you to swipe down and hit a button to toggle a light or group between off and a preset state (like the last one used). Even more fun is using Siri. Hue supports Apple's Homekit, so you can tell Siri to turn lamps and groups on or off as well as set a certain scene. Siri clearly has some high priority for interpreting things as the names of lamps and scenes, because recognition is spot on all the time. As it should be. It is great fun to speak and have the light change around you, but what it really does is make me wish for an Echo or Google home-type device. It is just a little bit too hard to get Siri's attention, even with "Hey Siri" enabled I have to be pretty close and speak in the right direction for Siri to pick up. When it comes to lights you really do not want to think about that.
Finally, there is automation of various kinds. To start off, you can set up routines inside the Hue app. These are time or location-based events which set your light a certain way. I have set my lights to turn off when I (okay, my phone, strictly speaking) leave home and to turn them on when I get home if the sun has set. (Add fridge-type questions to taste. "Yes, but how do I know the light is actually off when I am away?")
There is also a wake-up mode where you set your wake-up time and how long before that you want the light to turn on and gradually brighten. Being a rather outspoken anti-snoozer, I expected to not like being woken up earlier than needed, but I gave it a shot and find myself rather enjoying it. My only problem now is needing to remember to chage wake-up time in two places - Hue app and alarm - whenever I need to break from my usual morning routine.
The service If this then that inevitably comes up whenever people talk about smart homes and automation. It lets you set up various kinds of triggers and have something happen as a response. There are a bunch for Hue lights, so I set one up to turn my Go blue when it is going to rain. Unfortunately, I would have needed a service more along the lines of "If this and not this then that", because I woke up twice in the same night from the Go turning on and turning blue. So that was out, and the clear inability to prevent a light from coming on if off has stopped me from wanting to set anything else up. Home, yes. Smart, not really.
Automations are tricky in that way. The possibilites really are endless, and Philips have created an API anyone can use to create apps and services talking to your lamps. At the same time, this is the area most clearly in need of some standardized solutions. Integrations written by others are all good, but it takes a lot of luck for someone to create exactly the thing I want. For all those cases where a solution is almost but not quite what I need, I am currently pretty much on my own. Being a developer, I can probably code solutions myself, and have a great deal of fun doing so, but it is a clear step away from consumer level. I think what I want is some kind of rule functionality on the bridge side, seeing a list of "incoming" integrations and being able to assign rules to them somewhat like the routines. Only allow that rain warning to change my light between 6:30 and 22:00, only run this mail alert on weekdays between 8:00 and 16:30, things like that. Come to think of it, perhaps a checkbox "Do not let this integration turn on a light which is off" would get us far.
I have had my hues for a month, and I like them a lot. Were I to pick a favourite, it would be the Go for its good looks and bonus ability to run on its internal battery for a couple of hours. All the potential for improvments does not diminish the fun of using them today. I really like having more colour in my lights, and I do vary the colours and intensities quite often. And I keep thinking about adding more lights and how that would make everything even nicer. A switch here, a motion sensor there … and oh, to have one of those voice assistants ready to adjust the mood at any time …