Trying out Philips Hue lights

I recently bought a set of Philips Hue LED bulbs to try out. I feel there is some potential for innovative apps for them, so I wanted to use them for a while to get some ideas firmed up and see how it feels to live in the future.

Philips Hue Pack Shot

If you haven’t heard of these, they are “smart” bulbs that fit into normal ES light fittings (here in the UK my light fittings are BC bayonet so this required adapters). They come with a single hub device that you connect to your network via ethernet, which then uses the Zigbee wireless networking standard to have the bulbs form a sort of ad-hoc network that you can reach via the hub. I half expected the hub to use wi-fi to get net access, so there was one more cable and proximity to my router required, which was a shame.

There is of course a free iOS app to accompany the product that lets you instantly turn your lights on and off or change their colours or intensity (apps for non-Apple platforms are available). Philips also has a web service that will let you do this when not on your home LAN, and the so integrates with this.

I’m not the kind of person to get excited about changing the colour of lights in the house particularly, at least not for “moods”. What I am interested in is the potential to get good white colours out of LED bulbs and adjust that to suit a room, and to achieve much dimmer lighting without fitting dimmers, which aside from the hassle can be a problem for LED bulbs.

So after a few days, I have tried to use the bulbs in what I consider a normal way. We have a smallish house and two kids, and as such I put two bulbs in lamps in our sitting room, and one in our daughters’ room to test how this might be more than just a novelty for us.

In terms of setup and build quality, I was impressed. It was dead easy to get going and it works well.

However it took me a good while to work out how to use the iOS app to change the colours/warmth of individual bulbs and how the hell to create new “scenes” to switch between in the app.

Philips Hue App Screenshot

Essentially, the app is just horrible. At first it looks OK but after a day of use you realise that it is woefully lacking, and is geared totally towards novelty usage and having all the bulbs in one room (I dare say an American might say its perfect for your College dorm room). The only way to create presets of colour settings for the lights is to pick these colours from photos – some of which are supplied.

However, once you start controlling your lights from a phone or other device, you realise how damn intuitive and quick light switches are, and conversely how unintuitive and slow apps can be for this purpose. You just can’t beat reaching for a wall switch.

It turns out there are a series of issues that crop up using lights like this, for which Philips have made some design choices in an attempt to mitigate them, with mixed success.

The first big one is what does your light switch do now? If you turn the lights off with your phone, the switch on the wall still shows on, as it must for you to be able to control the bulb wirelessly. Conversely if you turn the light off at the wall you can’t turn it back on from your phone. This seems obvious but it’s a real drag if you want to e.g. have a shortcut to turn on all the lights in your rooms.

Again the flip side here is that if your wall switch has the light OFF and you turn it on at the wall, what should happen? It has to switch on even if your phone last switched it off, but what hue and brightness should it have? Philips seems to have gone with “a warm white”, which is frankly bizarre given you may have set it to a specific shade or colour previously.

The next issue is that for something like this to be really useful, you want it to be ubiquitous in your house. In reality you likely can’t replace all your lighting with Hue bulbs, not least because they are really expensive. Being able to control just a few of your house lights from a fancy remote control (your phone) is a fractional benefit versus controlling them all, and requires you to take on the cognitive load that this entails (which lights can I control again?) as well as remembering to leave all those lights and lamps switched ON even when not needed.

In a multi person household this won’t happen because it is unlikely everyone has a device set up to let them do it. Also frankly if you’re sitting next to a lamp switching it off directly is a lot more convenient than getting out your phone, unlocking it, running the app, and working out which scene to apply to kill just that light and not others in the house. Yes you can bring up options to turn just a single light off, but it’s yet another step,

So far the best usage I have had out of them is to set up a “theatre” scene in the app so that when we watch a film it dims the two lamps to the dimmest setting on a warm white. This is really nice, as is tapping another scene in the app to turn the lights back up again.

Except wait. The kids are shouting down the stairs at me saying their bedroom light has just come on brightly. Yes the default behaviour is for all bulbs to be set by any scene you choose, and you have to go through a convoluted UI in the app to tweak which bulbs are set by each scene. For multi-room setups this is UX madness, hence my thinking that this is currently sold as a single room novelty. Having lights all over the house change colour to create “scenes” doesn’t work unless you can see all these lights at the same time.

Another issue with this paradigm is that it is pretty dorky to use a phone to change the lights, and when your kids want to read in their room, or don’t want the light pink any more, you have to mess around with a badly designed app on your phone – and at least in my house the kids don’t have their own iOS devices to mess around with. Even if they did I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want them messing around with all the lights in the house.

Oh, and of course for this to make sense I have to get the app set up and settings synced in my wife’s phone, otherwise I’m some kind of weird control freak who won’t let anybody else change the lighting. An annoying buffoon who keeps chiding family members for adtually using light switches to turn off lights thus spoiling my plans to have perfect lighting at all times at the behest of my phone. Last night I already received the comment “So are you the only person who can control the lights now?”.

So, in hardware terms I think this is pretty good stuff. The Philips app is however terrible. The practicalities still leave a lot to be desired (do I replace all the light switches with blank panels and furnish all the children with iPod touches!?) but a better app would go a long way to mitigating this.

I might give creating such an app a shot… when I get a chance.

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Marc Palmer is an independent software developer and consultant. He writes native apps like the music practice app Soundproof for iOS devices for his company Montana Floss Co.. He can also do a pretty good job of designing products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's just embarrassing. You can find out more about him here.

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