The latest addition to the Philips Hue smart light system is a small black box that syncs a room full of lights with whatever’s happening on your TV. Games, movies, streaming media, or anything else you’re watching can pass through the box, which will perpetually adjust the color and brightness of your lights to match, theoretically creating a more immersive experience.
It definitely works — during a demo last month, I got to watch a room full of lights glow and flicker along with the trailer for Avengers: Endgame, with the colors rapidly changing to reflect what’s on-screen. It was a neat effect, and I can imagine it working great with certain experiences, like games or a horror movie.
But the trailer also showed me how this effect could become very tiring. Because a trailer is fast-paced and filled with rapid cuts, the lights were changing nonstop, to an almost disorienting degree. That won’t happen throughout the majority of TV shows or movies, but if you were to leave the device on while, say, commercials are airing, I can imagine it quickly growing tiring. (I watched with the lighting set to “intense mode”; the system’s “subtle” mode may have provided a less jarring effect. Light effects can also be turned off.)
The device, called the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box, goes in between your TV and all the gadgets you plug into it, like a Blu-ray player, game console, or streaming box. All those HDMI connections then go through the Hue Play, which passes the video signal onto your TV while analyzing the color so that it can be sent to your lights. Signify, which makes the Hue system, says there should be no latency issues even for games.
There are some key limitations, though. The device supports 4K 60Hz and HDR10 at launch, but it doesn’t support HDR10+ or Dolby Vision, two major standards for higher picture quality. HDR10+ and Dolby Vision images will still pass through the device in full quality to your TV, but the Hue Play box won’t be capable of analyzing them to produce light effects.
Syncing lights with what’s on your TV has been a dream for Hue’s creators for years now. Back in 2014, an integration with Syfy allowed lights to sync up with Sharknado 2. Later it was made to work with 12 Monkeys and an Xbox game. But these integrations all required “light scripts,” which meant that someone had to manually decide how lighting would change for every moment in a movie. Signify says it hasn’t given up on light scripts, but it’s acknowledging that they aren’t easy to scale — which is where automated systems like the Hue Play come in.
Last year, Signify took its first crack at an automated system with the Hue Sync app, which would sync lights with whatever was on a Mac or Windows PC. It worked well, but it was limited to computers.
The Hue Play box finally brings that exact feature to TVs, but it’s unfortunately a more expensive option. When it launches October 15th, it’ll sell for $229.99.
Update September 17th, 10AM ET: Signify clarified that HDR10+ and Dolby Vision videos still pass through the Hue Play box, even though lighting effects are not supported.