A Very IoT Christmas

Opening gift after gift Christmas morning is an event. Accompanied by family and laughter, gift after gift is opened, and this year my wife, Sarah, got me an Echo Dot, a Phillips Hue starter kit (with two white Lux bulbs included), and she helped her mom and stepfather pick out a Phillips Hue Color Ambiance as well.

Surprisingly for a guy who strongly believes in the future of the Internet of Things, I really don’t have that many off-the-shelf IoT devices. I’ve cobbled together a Pebble watch app that turned on a coffee pot, but this was for fun. I have a Google OnHub, which touts it’s ability to work with IFTTT, but I’ve never really saw the value in that without other smart home devices.

So, naturally, I wanted to connect all my new, shiny IoT devices. It was painless enough, I guess, to connect everything directly with my phone. Alexa was stuttering a bit thanks to spotty WiFi at Sarah’s mom and stepfather’s place, but once I put her in the hallway it worked out alright. You have to speak up, but workable. Thanks to Christmas morning network traffic, Alexa was having trouble enabling new skills. The screen on the Alexa app on that page were blank and trying to install a new skill by voice was met with a message that it “might take a minute.” After checking back after a minute, no dice.

With Sarah’s mom, and stepfather, and brother and his new girlfriend, we tried pushing the boundaries of what she was capable of answering without any 3rd-party skills. For the record, she can successfully tell you the average weight of a kangaroo, but will say “Hm, I’m not sure what you meant by that question,” when you ask “Who played ‘Prissy’ in the movie ‘Gone with the Wind’?” For the record, the average weight of a kangaroo is about 124 pounds. With some more hits and some more misses, each hit getting the raised eyebrows of pleasant surprise, and each miss being met with a bit of laughter and some head shaking by my stepfather-in-law, I decided it was time to try to figure out how to connect Alexa to the Phillips Hue bulbs.

Minutes turned into an hour as I set up the Phillips Hue hub and configured everything. This involved me tentatively walking into my parents-in-law’s bedroom to plug it into their router, and crossing my fingers as I unplugged something else for a needed socket. Then I signed up for the Hue account and connected it all up to my phone. Terms and conditions to use your lightbulb? Waiting for an update? Pressing the button on the hub to sync with your phone? Welcome to the future, I guess.

As a software developer, and knowing we are still in the early days of smart home tech, I expected a bit of a laborious process. I wasn’t surprised, but wasn’t necessarily pleased either, thinking of all the people who would like the benefit of IoT lightbulbs but don’t necessarily want the headache of setting them up. There are reasons for each part of the system, of course. You don’t want your neighbors turning your lightbulbs on and of, hence the hub and logging into the Hue service. You need to group the bulbs so you can, say, turn off the Living Room lights all at once. But, with this capability comes configuration time. Still, mesh networks would help eliminate the proliferation of hubs, and the setup process could be a bit more magical.

Once configured, it was useful to change the color temperature from “warm” to “sunlight,” and even different colors through the Hue app. However, the coup d’etat would be to say “Alexa, start the party!” and a certain Spotify playlist would play and the lights would dance to the music. Everyone would clap, my father would finally tell me those words I’ve been longing to hear for 28 years, “Son, I’m proud of you,” and I would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I would weep tears of joy and for one singular moment, all would be right with the world.

Unfortunately, I failed. After hours of playing around with it, the weight of the truth began to burden my shoulders: this seamless dream is currently impossible using off-the-shelf connectivity.

After hours of downloading third-party apps, hitting the button on the Hue hub each time I wanted to sync, and doing quite a bit of Googling I realized that only parts of my dreams could come true. Yes, I can turn on and off the light with Alexa, and change the brightness, and even start “scenes.” I can sync IFTTT with both Alexa and Hue and now I can say “Alexa, start the party” and the lights will slowly change colors over time. But no syncing with audio.

Some third party apps promise to sync with the audio, Ambify being the most promising. On your Mac, you can stream from any audio source and it will sync your lights to the rhythm. It’s an audio processor, it doesn’t care if you are using Spotify or iMusic or anything else. Only one problem: I don’t have a Mac. Although, even if I did that wouldn’t help with the Alexa request party.

I do have an iPhone, and some of those apps promise to “listen” to the audio to control the lights. The quality of these apps seem shady at best, with two- and three-star reviews pretty much across the board.  Hue Disco seems most likely to work, but the $3.99 barrier to entry and the lack of direct Alexa integration puts a damper on my excitement.

Through the Art of the Bodge I’m sure eventually I will put together some middleware that taps into the Hue and Spotify APIs to do something like what I want, but that’s a lot of manual steps. I’ve talked a bit about the UX of using IoT devices,  but we make a lot of progress in automation in setting them up and interacting with other devices as well. In a perfect world, I would bring home the Hues, plug them into a lamp and they would know what other Hue bulbs are around and automatically create rooms for me. It would know my phone is in the house and that it belongs to me, that the Hue bulbs belong to me, and that I can control them. They would automatically sync up to the WiFi network and authentication would be through voice or vision or some other biometrics. All the information I want to allow them to share would be shared, and that which I didn’t would not. It looks like our community of IoT creators have a lot of work on our hands as the Internet of Thing goes mainstream.

This is just the long way of saying I just want Alexa to start a party. Is that too much to ask?

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