Hands on with Philips Hue for gamers

Good lighting is one of the easiest ways to alter and enhance a room’s atmosphere. Interior designers are generally the best way to go about achieving a sophisticated ambiance, but for those of us who can’t justify the expense of hiring someone to help choose and install a chic lighting system, there’s Hue by Dutch electronics giant Philips.

Most of us are familiar with the company’s colour-changing LED lamps, which screw into standard lightbulb sockets and can be controlled by an app on your phone. They’ve been around in one form or another for the better part of a decade, and their simplicity and effectiveness has helped them become a common facet in many smart home setups.

A more recent addition to the Hue lineup is Hue Play, a smart lighting system designed to enhance entertainment experiences — including the playing of video games — by altering room ambience in tandem with whatever’s taking place on screen. Given that gamers are known for their love of things that light up — think colour-changing keyboards and mice, LED-lit gaming towers, the glowing panels on controllers and VR gear — a lighting solution that alters the mood of the entire room seems like a pretty good idea. And after tinkering around with Hue Play for about a week or so, I can confirm that Philips smart lights do indeed enhance the gaming experience — with a couple of caveats.

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Hue Play comes in a few flavours. You can get one 10-inch light bar ($90) or a package of two ($170), and they come in black or white, with stands that let you orient them vertically or horizontally or even mount them to your TV or wall. Additional lights can be added à la carte. Note that you’ll also need a Hue Bridge — a sort of router for all your Hue lights, sold separately for $70 — to make them work properly and control them from your phone.

Setup is simple. Just plug in the lights, position them as you like, then open the Hue app to connect to the Bridge. Your lights will be found on the network automatically. Then all you need to do is create a new entertainment area in the app, select the lights that will comprise it, and indicate their position relative to your display. Now you can control their colour and intensity by sliding each light around on a circular colour scale. Easy-peasy.

But there’s more to Hue Play than just setting up a static light source, and this is where things get a bit tricky depending on what you want to do.

For starters, light placement is key. In order to achieve the intended ambiance it’s best to position the bars so that they throw light on the wall behind the display. This shouldn’t prove too tough if you’re connecting them to a PC monitor, which likely sits on a desk and has a bit of room behind it. A TV mounted to a wall, on the other hand, will likely force you to place the lights beside or under it, which is bound to prove overpowering and distracting. Luckily for me my living room TV sits on a wooden console with a good 30 centimetres of space between screen and wall, so I was able to set up the lights properly with relative ease. I don’t know if I’m in the majority or minority of TV owners on this front.

A potentially bigger issue is that in order to achieve the full effect of Hue Play you need to take advantage of its sync feature, which transforms the LED bars from static coloured lights into dynamic, shade-changing bands of wonder via an algorithm that analyzes and interprets the colours currently shown on your display and throws up matching hues in real time with virtually no detectable lag. The effect is particularly immersive with two or more bars, as they mimic colours relative to where they’re positioned behind or around screen. It’s undeniably cool technology that works very well.

The problem for gaming, though, is that the sync feature really only works for PC players. It requires users to download and install an app on a desktop or laptop. You can connect your computer to a TV and mirror screens, but that just moves your PC content (movies, videos, games) to your TV. There’s no support for the sync app on smart TVs, which means console gamers are left with statis lights.

The static lights can still be fun, though you’ll need to be a little more hands-on in setting the right tone. I set the bars to red while playing Resident Evil 2, turned them to green while playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and switched them to pastel orange and blue while playing No Man’s Sky. It made for a pleasant, subtly augmented room vibe, and might also help those who typically suffer eye strain when playing in a darkened room.

Here’s the TL;DR version: Hue Play is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have bit of gaming gear. It’s not going to improve your ranking in Overwatch or give you a leg up on Genghis Kahn while defending against his onslaughts in Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, but it’s a fun add-on that can augment the room’s atmosphere. Basically, it’s for folks who have a little extra money to spend on something to enhance their hobby. Set your expectations accordingly — and understand the advantages it offers PC gamers over console players — and you’ll likely enjoy your new entertainment lighting experience.

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