Review: The light bulb of the future is impractically smart

Credit: Alice Truong DVICE

We've come a long way since Thomas Edison. After that light bulb went off in his head, electric bulbs became ubiquitous in homes around the world. But since the days of Edison, the incandescent hadn't changed too much. Stodgy and inefficient, these bulbs output more heat than light. Today, against the backdrop of Internet flowing like water and people carrying tiny, robust computers on them at all times, Philips Hue represents the next generation of bulbs: energy efficient, wirelessly connected, app controlled, color changing and smart.

Further proof that Hue is the bulb of the future, Philips has fostered a platform around its LED lighting system. Its API is open to developers, who have cranked out some fun and funky apps that leverage Hue and point to its potential. We'll take a look at some of the most interesting things you can do with Hue, and you can decide whether it's worth it.

Getting started

A Philips Hue starter pack comes with three bulbs and a bridge, the latter acting as the brains of the system. To start, you screw in the LED bulbs, and turn on the light switch. You should leave the switch in the on position, because turning it off is the equivalent of turning off a surge protector. At that point, the bulbs are no longer smart. You can use them as regular bulbs, but you won't be able to control them from an app, nor will programmed rules have any effect.

Connected to the router, the bridge communicates with the bulbs, up to 50 at a time. Whenever there's a communication error, as there usually is with wireless gadgets, the problem can be fixed by pressing the large button in the center. Like a modem, the lights will turn on in succession, and when all four are illuminated, it's ready for business. Because of this, you probably don't want to stash the bridge away in some dusty corner overgrown with wires.

Once the hardware is in place, you can control the bulbs with the Hue app, free for both iOS and Android. There, you're able to select colors for bulbs, either from a range or from photos. The latter lets you drag pins across different areas of an image, each bulb changing its color to the corresponding points. Philips provides a default set with a wide range of colors, but you can also choose from your own shots or take a photo within the app using your mobile device's camera. The app also includes four light presets optimized for certain activities: relax, concentrate, reading, and energize.

Recent updates

All this was fine and good, but Hue was still lacking in some departments. After launching in October, some of the initial wow wore off as consumers waited for more advanced functionality.

In May, Philips rolled out some major updates that added geofencing features, automatically controlling the lights based on your location. When your smartphone or tablet is detected, the bulbs are triggered, starting light scenes (color and brightness settings from an image) when you come home, and turning the lights off when you leave. You can also specify for the former to take place only at night.

Philips also added more robust timer and scheduling functionality. If you want your lights to turn on automatically in the morning to help ease you into waking up, you can choose how long it takes for the lights to fade in. You can also use Hue as a visual reminder, turning on light scenes after a certain amount of time has elapsed. Instead of fussing through menus, you can easily turn timers on and off by double tapping the light scene icon on the app's main page.

Color range

When I first played around with Hue, I noticed the lights weren't able to replicate certain colors. After a bit of digging, I confirmed indeed that Hue is lacking in certain areas of the color space, specifically much of the greens and blues. The chart below from Philips, known as the CIE color space, shows the range of colors Hue can address, and the green triangle represents the maximum saturation within the space.

The bulbs have no problem emulating warm colors. It can make a room look like a gorgeous Boracay sunset in an instant. Yet when it comes to cooler colors outside of Hue's range, the bulbs produce the closest color it can make. With blue, the light is more of a bright white with a bluish tint. Green, meanwhile, looks like yellow with a lime tinge.

Open platform

There are about 30 third-party uses for Hue, according to the company. I myself have played with a handful of them, which leverage the smart bulbs in creative ways.

Among my favorite is IFTTT, an integration that was released with Philips' updates back in May. The service, short for 'If This Then That,' lets you build recipes that when triggered perform the following actions: turn on lights, turn off lights, blink lights, dim lights, change color, change color from image, change to random color and turn on color loop.

So far, IFTTT has more than 50 channel partners and seem to be adding new ones fairly regularly. These include content providers (BuzzFeed, ESPN), social networks (Facebook, Foursquare), photo sharing sites (Flickr, Instagram, 500px), hardware (Belkin WeMo, Withings, Jawbone Up), date and time, weather and more. Now with Hue under its belt, you can create recipes such as:

  • If the sun sets, turn on the lights.
  • If Facebook's stock plummets, change the color of the lights to red.
  • If I upload a new photo to Flickr, change the color of the bulbs based on the image.
  • If I'm listening to Last.fm, change the color of the lights to match the album art.

Other interesting Hue apps include Ambihue, which creates an instant light show synced to your playlist (great for parties) and Exoplanet, which has an experimental feature that will change the color of the bulbs based on selected exoplanets, planets that are outside our solar system. Based on the planet's stellar type and temperature of its host star, Exoplanet changes the ambient lighting so you can see what it'd look like when standing on a particular planet.

Logitech's new Harmony Ultimate remote is another that plays well with Hue. It can't select specific colors, but there are sliders to adjust the coolness or warmth as well as the brightness of bulbs. It's much easier to use a remote to control lights than it is to unlock a screen, launch an app and then make adjustments. But what's most interesting is the idea of a remote controlling the smart home. From my conversations with Logitech execs, it seems like Hue is just the beginning.

But how practical is it?

Certainly, there's a lot of potential to be unleashed with Hue, and I look forward to seeing more inventive uses for these LED bulbs. But on a more practical note, future tech never comes cheap. At $200 for a starter pack, these aren't lights you'll pick up at a hardware store to replace your burnt out incandescents.

Instead, these are bulbs you'd find at the Apple Store or on Amazon. These are Hue's only vendors, and it says something about the clientele: early adopter, techie, gadget lover, developer, someone with disposable income.

Down the line, there's a possibility that the cost of such smart bulbs will become more mainstream, affordable and even practical. But for now, Hue is for those more wowed with its potential than distracted by its price tag.

All images Alice Truong for DVICE.

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