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Philips Hue Entertainment sounds awesome. Here's why it isn't

At least not yet. For now, I have a couple of notes.

Image (c) Disney Music

I know, I know.

Back when I first saw a demo of it in January, I called Hue Entertainment "a smart lighting game-changer." Powered by "Hue Sync" software on your PC or Mac, Hue Entertainment syncs your color-changing Philips Hue smart lights with whatever's on your computer's screen. Hook that computer up to your TV, and things really get interesting.

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When Philips invited me to a fancy hotel suite and showed me a full demo of Hue Entertainment back at CES 2018, I was floored. The software that makes it work has to read your screen in real time to provide near-instantaneous lighting changes on the fly, and as I watched multiple demos from Philips -- including an impromptu Overwatch match that was entirely live and unscripted -- I was struck by how little lag I noticed. The developers did a terrific job, and it's near impossible not to be impressed when you see it for yourself.

Now, after several months of mild anticipation, that Hue Sync software is finally available for the public to play around with, so that's exactly what I've been doing. I still see tons of potential, but the more I test it out, the less I'm convinced that it's something I'm ready to incorporate into my own entertainment setup at home. Here's why:

You might find it distracting

I took to Twitter with several examples of Hue Entertainment in action to try and gauge peoples' first impressions. The most visually striking example I put together was a clip of Darth Vader's violent stroll through the docking corridor at the end of Rogue One. Some loved what they saw (out of about 100 respondents, roughly 60 percent said that the lighting changes made the clip better, not worse), but the biggest complaint by far was that the lights were too distracting.

Animated films with lots of rich, saturated colors like Disney's Moana are typically a pretty good fit for Hue Sync.

Ry Crist/CNET

One commenter complained that the activity from the lights was pulling his focus away from what was happening on screen. "It's like watching tennis," he wrote. "You keep looking back and forth." CNET global copy chief Nick Hide pointed out that the black bars surrounding most widescreen film releases spoil the effect to a degree. Another commenter called it "incredibly distracting" as far as films were concerned, but added that she might enjoy it while watching a live concert at home.

I think that's where I fall, too. In a lot of cases, the rapid-fire lighting changes were more than I wanted, but it really depends on what content you're watching. To Philips' credit, you can cap the peak brightness of your lights, and you can also adjust the magnitude of the lighting changes between four different settings ranging from "Subtle" to "Intense." You can also choose whether or not to let your content's audio affect the lights, but in most cases, that setting seemed to make things too jittery for my tastes, with sudden spikes in brightness for things like dialogue that I wouldn't have associated with light to begin with.

It doesn't recognize context

At any rate, customization settings like those are a good start, but I never found one that felt like a good, one-size-fits-all solution. The "Intense" setting produced some striking effects, but it was also much too busy during scenes where shifts in light seemed patently unnecessary. The "Subtle" setting was dramatically less distracting, but it also underwhelmed during the moments that called for color coordination.

The mostly neutral tones of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade helped create a nice contrast to the occasional outbursts of color. In this clip, a sudden shift of the lights helped emphasize the rising stakes in the scene.

Ry Crist/CNET

To that end, I wonder if Philips could do more to teach its software when to let the colors fly, and when to show restraint. A mode that would automatically detect the appropriate level of intensity from scene to scene would be an interesting start, but for now, it really just depends on the overall color palette of whatever you're watching.

For instance, I tried streaming one of my childhood favorites, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Between the dusty desert vistas and the beige, brown tones of Indy's iconic outfit, the film has a fairly neutral palette that didn't give my lights much to work with. But that actually seemed to help Hue Entertainment pop during the occasional outbursts of color.

The takeaway: Contrasts are a good thing, and Hue Sync software that's a little better at creating them by knowing when to hit the brakes and when to step on the gas would be a good step in the right direction. That's likely a very tall order for the Hue Sync development team -- but in the meantime, why not curate some specific, custom-tailored light shows to popular films, series and games in order to show Hue Sync at its best? And hey, on that note...

It needs more partners

roku-apple-tv-amazon-fire

Hue Entertainment would be so, so much better if it worked natively on the most popular streaming devices, no computer necessary.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is the other biggie that's holding me back from giving Hue Entertainment a full-throated endorsement. Most of us don't typically keep computers hooked up to our TVs -- instead, we watch our movies and shows using media-streaming devices, cable boxes or gaming consoles. As of now, Hue Sync won't work with any of them.

Since Hue Entertainment was first announced, the team at Philips has been hinting that integrations with platforms like those are on the way -- but aside from a gaming integration with Razer, they've yet to materialize. I asked Philips for an update on that front prior to publishing this post -- the response was still essentially "stay tuned."

Philips needs to hurry up. Those integrations are the clearest way to spur people into trying Hue Entertainment out, and until they arrive, folks like me are forced to base their first impressions off of the clunkier computer approach. Seamless software support with my media streamer of choice would make for a huge improvement in the user experience, and it would also help bring console gaming into play. That seems like a huge area of opportunity -- maybe even more so than movies.

Hue's hardware isn't ideal

If you want to try Hue Entertainment out, then you're going to need at least a couple of Hue lights. A Hue Lightstrip behind your TV seems like the best start, but if you want your setup to capture the motion of color across the screen like in that clip from Valerian up above, you'll need multiple lights surrounding your setup. That ain't cheap.

You'll need multiple Hue lights surrounding your TV in order to capture colors as they move across the screen, like in this clip from Cosmos.

Ry Crist/CNET

One potential solution would be for Philips to release an new version of its Lightstrip that's capable of putting out multiple colors at once, similar to the competing Lifx Z Lightstrip (I have no idea why Philips hasn't done this already). You'd then be able to jump in with a fully functional Hue Entertainment setup using just a single Hue product, lowering the barrier to entry for consumers curious about trying it out.

Other Hue products seem better suited to shine behind or beside the viewer, where they can help enhance the overall ambiance without glaring directly into their eyes.

The closest thing Philips has to a product that seems like it belongs next to a TV is the Philips Hue Bloom, a desktop fixture that casts directional light in a single direction. Place it beside your TV and point it at the wall, and it'll paint your living room with color without being directly visible to the viewer like those bowl-shaped Hue Go fixtures I used in my setup. I haven't tested Hue Entertainment using Blooms instead of Goes beside the TV, but I imagine it'd make for a much less distracting experience.

As such, I think Philips would be wise to start offering Hue Entertainment starter packs, perhaps with a Lightstrip and two Bloom fixtures bundled at a discount. Until then, I think a lot of people who try it out are going to come away unhappy once they realize that the lights they've already got aren't the greatest fit.

Color me cautiously optimistic

CNET TV expert David Katzmaier has long harbored skepticism toward color-changing TV accent lighting, and I share a lot of his reservations about Hue Entertainment. I certainly don't think I'd leave it turned on in my home, and I don't think I'd want it coloring a film upon first viewing. Instead, I'd save it for movies and shows that seem particularly well-suited for the feature, or perhaps break it out the next time my brother or sister are in town with their kids for a visit. 

At the same time, I have a strange respect for Philips for stubbornly sticking with the idea for well over a decade. At some point, I wonder if things will come full circle and we'll see a new generation of "Ambilight" TVs with color-changing Hue lights built right into the backs. We're not there yet, but if Hue Entertainment catches on, who knows.

For that to happen, Philips will need to keep tweaking the software, and maybe refresh the existing Hue hardware, too. Integrations across all of the most popular streaming devices will also be key, as will content partnerships with studios and game developers. Philips seems committed to helping Hue Entertainment catch on, so I'm optimistic that we'll see improvement by year's end. But, for now at least, it's still more gimmick than game-changer.